It's been an unusual Premiership season to say the least. We've seen languishing sides rejuvenated by a change of leadership, fantastic teams decimated by injuries and forced into weird and wonderful loan deals, a strong title race at the upper echelons and an unusual mid-table scrap for European rugby, and oh so much more. However, the overriding feeling about Rugby this year has been disappointment; I'm not saying that to be a pessimist, but the mix of a Covid stricken season, and some of the elements that we are about to talk about, meant that fans seem more frustrated than previous years. Let's count through some of the reasons why...
5. Wasps Injury Stricken Season + Massive Departures
It's one hell of a ride being a Wasps fan. One season you're competing on multiple fronts for the top honours in European rugby, the next season you're in the doldrums, battling it out to steer clear of that dastardly relegation zone. However, Wasps' injury record over the last few seasons has really highlighted their reliance on this golden generation of youth that seems to be coming through in the squad. In the long run, this should work well to push this side into being bonafide challengers for the next half decade, in the short term however, the inexperience on the pitch has led to multiple results being lost through silly decisions in the final ten minutes. Just look at the names that have spent significant time on the table this season; Launchbury, Willis, Brookes, Kibirige, Mills (whole season), McIntyre, Young and more. That is a bunch of starting XV players who have missed a multitude of games this season.
Even with the re-emergence of Young and Kibirige towards the back end of this season, Wasps have then gone on to announce a bunch of key players leaving at the end of the season. Taylor, De Jongh, Rowlands, Owlett, Vellacott, Vailanu, Brookes, Sopoaga and Douglas have all announced/already left the club this season with five Championship players joining the club in return and just the two Premiership players in out-of-favour Stooke and out of-form Francois Hougaard also joining the side. If this squad can't recover from this injury crisis ahead of September, you have to feel as if Wasps are staring down the barrel of a torrential season.
4. The Refereeing Debacle
We've already wrote about this ongoing refereeing situation in great detail in a previous article, but again we have to reiterate that fans and referee's are clearly at odds with one and other, and it's not sustainable. We are so lucky to have a selection of the best referee's in the game here in the UK, and although the likes of Barnes, Pearce, Carley and co might have their moments, they are established, respected figures within our game who have proven time and time again that they are not the problem. The adjusted interpretation of the rule set and elevation of penalty against dangerous play is a great message on paper, but it's been proven to be not so cut and dry in implementation. I am in total agreement that making the game safer is a necessary practice that needs to continue, but the consequence of creating a wholly unentertaining product for a new watcher will eventually kill the sport (mind the melodramatics).
This is only further intensified by the absolute crap-shoot that has been the TMO service this season. Previously it's been used as a staple of professionalism within the modern game, with Rugby leading the way on their video assisted refereeing practices, but the overuse of the TMO has meant it has been impossible to celebrate tries, big tackles, wonder passes and set plays without immediately pausing to imagine the TMO's likely input. Eight disallowed tries during a game between Bristol and Gloucester last week, 18 red cards shown (compared to just the one in Super Rugby Aotearoa) this season, 19 yellow cards shown on one Premiership weekend, even if every single decision was to the letter of the law, then unfortunately the laws are wrong; yep, I went there. We seem to be purposely sabotaging our sport in favour of an immensely technical, non-accessible, stop-and-start, NFL-style of play; it's become a chore to sit through a full 80 minutes of Rugby.
3. Worcester Warriors... Just in General
Although being a Wasps fan has had it's tribulations due to unforeseen circumstances that aren't anyone's fault, Worcester fans have had far less than even that to cheer about this season. Only one win in the league all year (the other two were from COVID suspensions), last minute losses to Exeter and 14 man Wasps after resilient displays, the announcement of Francois Hougaard leaving the club, the refusal to play Wasps in front of fans for the first time this season and Chris Ashton being an absolute blunder of a signing have all contributed to a historically poor performance by the midlands club. Thankfully, with the league likely to continue being ring fenced for the next few seasons, Worcester have more than enough time to rebuild, but unusual signings like Vailanu and Chudley don't really stick to this youth-focused strategy they've employed over the last few seasons. That Wasps thing though... Really, really poor by a club who have also lamented the lack of ticket sales hurting their own club finances this season; it definitely spits in the face of sports fans everywhere.
2. Online Bullying - Jacob Umaga
What has been one of the biggest issues in professional sport over the last decade has been online bullying and harassment of professionals after a game. We saw it in the Autumn Nations Cup after the final between France and England when the referee received death threats on Twitter, we saw it in the Six Nations when Romain Poite received harassment online after England and Wales, we saw Luke Pearce last weekend receive over 30 threats online after the Toulouse/La Rochelle final, and despite the mental health awareness promotion we've seen over the last year or two, professional sportsmen are being forced into shutting down their social media for suspended periods due to backlash after poor performances. Ulster fly-half Billy Burns received a barrage of abuse on social media over the Six Nations, including some users tagging him in on Twitter and urging him to retire. It prompted the Ireland international to deactivate his Twitter account. However, at just 22 years old, Jacob Umaga experienced some of the worst online vitriol we've seen after a Wasps loss to Harlequins earlier in the season. He was forced into deactivating his Instagram and was rightfully taken out of the spotlight by Blackett for a couple of matches to recuperate despite performing well in training.
Ex-Wasps coach Ian Costello made a statement on the abuse, 'What we can do is make sure we support and protect the players and we look at that [abuse] as completely unacceptable and make sure that kind of behaviour isn’t condoned.'
'Jacob has to just stay away from that kind of stuff. He is positive, resilient and will bounce back. As a sport, we have to make players are protected from this as much as possible. If I’m honest it is something that shouldn’t be happening but it is happening.'
This is a disgusting aspect of modern sport, and a much wider issue than just Rugby, but by putting Rugby's values at the forefront of our reception, this should be stamped out of Rugby immediately and those that promote this behaviour should be permanently banned from the sport and punished to nth degree.
1. Premiership Ring Fencing
Again, the melodrama in some areas on this list might seem a little over the top, but ring fencing the Premiership is potentially the worst thing to ever happen to top flight Rugby. Despite the two top seeds in the league being ex-Championship sides , Bristol only a handful of seasons ago and Exeter just over a decade ago, we will never see those sorts of stories ever again. Potential Rugby powerhouses like Ealing, unless given the opportunity this season, will never get the opportunity to play at Rugby's top level. Ex-Premiership stalwarts such as Rotherham, who were a constant in the league just 15 years ago, will never get the opportunity to be back on our screens consistently. It's a crying shame, and you can argue that it's just three years, but let's face it, if it pleases Premiership bosses, this will just keep renewing over, and over again.
The Premiership needs increasing in size, that I agree with. 14 sides in a league could accommodate a two teams up, two teams down system, create a far more competitive top four, top six, bottom three similar to the Top 14, and it could squeeze Saracens and Ealing in without pushing another side down. However, with the England A team back in the fixture list, international sides playing more Rugby than ever, players demanding larger salaries than ever and streamlined squads up and down the league, it's doubtful any club could cope with another four games a season. To me, it means that half the league will have nothing to play for by February every season; what fan wants to watch between six and eight rubber matches played out by their side a year? It's boring, it yet again plays on the stigma that Rugby is only accessible to the elite and it completely bypasses the best stories we've seen in the English Premiership since it's inception. It stinks of European Super League, and I hate it!