First major challenge of Premiership restart arrives: will Bristol or Exeter regret their approaches?
New breakdown interpretations, empty stadiums and mid-season squad changes – it’s been a massive adjustment for Gallagher Premiership teams as they enter the brave new world of post-COVID rugby.
A massive challenge is now about to hit teams this week with the first double-up round of matches set to begin on Tuesday evening.
While the PRO14 have resorted to playing a pair of derbies before heading into the knockout rounds and Super Rugby required a complete reset, the Premiership has forged ahead with the intention of completing the normal regular season before the finals take place. That’s required a massive contraction of the time allotted between matches, however – which means after being eased into what’s almost a new season of rugby over the past two weekends, Premiership sides will now be playing two games every week.
It’s a unique situation. While fans of other sporting codes are accustomed to seeing their teams hit the pitch or court multiple times in a seven-day cycle, it’s a rarity for rugby. During the World Cup, nations will often have to cope with the odd short recovery period here and there but that’s still nothing compared to how Premiership players are going to be tested over the five remaining rounds of competition.
How coaches navigate the upcoming period will be crucial to who makes the playoffs – and how they’ll perform once they get there – and already we’re seeing contrasting approaches.
As it currently stands, Exeter Chiefs are eight points clear at the top of the table and it would take a massive fall from grace for Rob Baxter’s charges to miss out on the playoffs.
Baxter, however, is taking a long-term approach this week and has made 14 changes to the team that comfortably disposed of Sale over the weekend with wing Olly Woodburn the sole survivor.
“When you look at it, it’s probably going to be the first time where teams will genuinely make a lot of changes, because there are the regulations for these midweek blocks where you have that element of limiting game minutes for players and also that no players can start all three games,” Baxter said following the team naming.
“It will be interesting to see what teams do and how they approach it but at the same time, it’s also very exciting.
“The collection of points we’ve had helps ease the pressure, but we need to keep challenging ourselves.”
While all teams will have to adjust to the player welfare restrictions, it’s a considerably easier task for the Chiefs, given their massive lead at the top of the table. While they still won’t want to drop any fixtures, it’s not the end of the world if they do.
That’s a massive contrast to the other teams duking it out for playoff spots, because any loss could be the last nail in the coffin.
The Chiefs’ upcoming opposition, Bristol Bears, are sitting in second place and were it not for the changes to the competition’s structure caused by the mid-season interruption, rugby fans across the globe would be salivating at the thought of Tuesday’s clash.
The Bears have to play four of the top five teams in their remaining matches so every point will be crucial – which is likely why Pat Lam is resting a number of players but not completely overhauling his team.
The likes of Steven Luatua, Callum Sheedy, Semi Radradra and Charles Piutau are all starting their third games on the trot and will likely need to sit out Bristol’s match against the Sharks over the weekend. Keeping a number of leaders on the field for the match with Exeter, then saving others such as John Afoa, Ben Earl and Siale Piutau for the weekend will ensure that there’s always a steady concentration of talent and experience on the park.
Assuming Exeter’s contingent do succumb to Bristol, they’ll still remain in pole position for the coming weeks and will need to book just three wins from their final matches to safely secure top spot – and that’s assuming their nearest challengers don’t trip themselves up.
Once the finals arrive, Baxter’s men will still be fit and fresh for the knockout rugby that lies ahead of them – but that won’t necessarily be the case for their rivals.
Lam will be targeting Bristol’s match with Worcester in a week and a half as the perfect chance to roll out the B-team, which will at least provide some relief for the men who have heavy workloads over the next two matches.
That’s a tactic that Wasps head coach Lee Blackett has implemented already. Blackett completely rotated his squad for Wasps’ opening two matches since the restart, with the back-ups comfortably accounting for the 10th placed Warriors over the weekend. Now, the Wasps coach has reverted to the same team from the opening game for Tuesday’s fixture with Sale which could see the two teams swap positions on the ladder if the Sharks score a win.
Like Bristol, Wasps and Sale will be carefully planning when they can afford to rest and rotate their players – but both teams have obviously identified their derby as a must-win, given the respective sides they’re choosing to roll out.
While Sale have mixed things up from their opening two games, that’s likely as much to do with trying to find a winning formula as it is to keep players fresh, following their two losses since the restart. The Sharks’ season would take a disastrous turn with another loss in succession and Steve Diamond will be desperate to bank some points this round.
All in all, we’re seeing some very different tactics from the coaches for what looms as the biggest challenge of the Premiership restart: keeping players fresh while not sacrificing an all-important spot in the playoffs.
Will Rob Baxter’s mass rotation come back to bite Exeter in the sudden death stages of the competition, or will his refreshed team be ready to push on for their first title since 2017? And will Pat Lam’s planning pave the way for Bristol’s first Premiership finals appearance since 2007?
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