Leicester v Saracens, Guinness Premiership Final
Mullins hails 'better than ever' Premiership
May 28, 2010
Saracens' Ernst Joubert and Leicester's Geordan Murphy pose with the Guinness Premiership trophy on the eve of their Twickenham showdown © Getty Images
ESPN's latest recruit Nick Mullins is relishing the opportunity to bring the Premiership into your living room and believes next season's title-race is shaping up as the best ever.
Mullins was unveiled as ESPN's chief commentator earlier this week prior to the broadcaster's live coverage of the Premiership next season and like many he will be focused on Twickenham this Saturday as Leicester and Saracens go head-to-head for English rugby's biggest prize.
"I think the best two teams are there," Mullins told ESPNscrum. "No matter what you thought about the way Saracens played at the start of the season they played rugby designed to win and for the first time this season they appear to have developed character. You can put a face to most of the clubs but until this season you would have struggled to do that with Saracens. But they have changed under Brendan Venter and I think they have been at the forefront of everything good about the Premiership in recent months.
"Leicester have used fewer gears throughout the course of the season. They appear to put Twickenham into their sat nav at the start of each season and have once again taken the most direct route. They very rarely have to go into fifth gear, or even third. They have been looking as professional as ever while Saracens have done it slightly differently, up and down the gears a bit more dramatically - but we have got the two teams who ended the season playing the best rugby. There is no question about that."
Mullins expects a fiercely-contested clash at Twickenham but believes Leicester may just have the edge. "You have to have a very good excuse to bet against Leicester and I tend to agree with [Leicester head coach] Richard Cockerill to a certain extent in the fact that the brand of rugby they have been playing has been great to watch. Leicester do all the things you have to do to win rugby games. Ben Youngs has been the most exciting scrum-half this season and [fly-half] Toby Flood at his best is a magnificent player.
"Leicester have got a great balance and Saracens will have to get in among the forwards at the scrum and the breakdown and they are going to have to work hard to disrupt the Leicester set-piece. Last year London Irish were playing a similar kind of rugby to that which Saracens are playing now but Leicester went out and suffocated them. Leicester have the big match experience but Saracens can beat them - they will just need to play the best they have played all season to do it."
ESPN are set to broadcast 43 matches each season in a three-year deal that will include visits to Sandy Park - the home of Premiership new boys Exeter who secured their place in the top flight earlier this week. And Mullins, a veteran of four Rugby World Cups and a Six Nations regular since 2001, believes the Chiefs will hold their own - such is the nature of the competition.
"One of the other things that has struck me is how competitive that league has become," he added. "As much as you would not have made much money by saying that Leicester would be challenging come the end of the season, you certainly would have done if you had mentioned Saracens or someone like Northampton or Bath. I think that it is one of those leagues, where on any given day one side can beat another. That's the real strength of the Premiership. It's also really cosmopolitan and there is lots of good English talent coming through while the clubs work hard to compete against the money of the Top 14. But I really think the end product is as good if not better than it has ever been at the moment."
Like anyone with a love for the game, Mullins admits that the Premiership was struggling in terms of entertainment in the early parts of the season but thanks to the efforts of Premier Rugby and the Rugby Football Union to free up the tackle area via a change in interpretation, fans have delighted in a return to attacking rugby.
"The first half of this season was as dull as rugby has been for a long time. But it is one of the fascinating things about the game that a tiny change in interpretation, a tweak at the tackle area, can completely transform the product. It's almost like if you had a DVD of this season, the highlights would be split into two discs - the first called 'Barely worth watching' and the second disc called 'As good as you'll probably see'. It was not that difficult to see where the problem was but fascinating to see how such a small change could make such a difference."
As for ESPN's plans for the coming season, Mullins believes they have a lot to live up to but has backed them to break new ground in their coverage. "Sky Sports have set the standards in terms of rugby coverage on TV and the BBC has worked very hard with its limited opportunities to push things along," said Mullins. "But I think Sky have set the bar at a level that it had never been at previously. What they do is the standard that we have got to aim for because that is what the viewer expects. And I think with the team we are assembling at ESPN we have a fantastic opportunity to do just that.
"I was impressed by ESPN's plans to take the game beyond the regular Saturday or Sunday follower of the game. You can turn up to Twickenham for a club game and find 80,000 people there and it is not just your archetypal rugby supporter, there are wives, girlfriends and kids of all ages and if we help attract that kind of crowd to follow their team on a regular basis then we will be doing a decent job.
"We're trying to broaden the audience from what is traditional, open the game up, it is a complicated game but with a little bit of explanation I think there is an audience there ready to be taken on by ESPN during the course of the season."