It is only 27 days since Exeter Chiefs lifted the Premiership trophy after their win in the final against Wasps
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Rob Baxter, the Exeter Chiefs director of rugby, has urged his team to “accept these times”, as the champions head to Harlequins to open the defence of their Gallagher Premiership title won only 27 days ago.
Baxter is not alone in having to put a stoical face on new and unusual arrangements for the 2020-21 season, which sees Premiership Rugby authorities primed to step in and cancel fixtures if they perceive there is a threat to health posed by the sort of Covid outbreaks that impacted on the closing stages of the recently completed campaign.
In order to avoid the uncertainty and acrimony that surrounded the Sale Sharks versus Worcester Warriors fixture that was eventually cancelled following 27 positive tests in the Sale camp, Premiership Rugby has announced new procedures for dealing with such issues.
“We want to differentiate between responsibility and fault as it is so difficult to determine if someone has brought coronavirus into a particular environment,” said Premiership Rugby director Phil Winstanley.
“It feels harsh to take away [all] points in that situation. We will look to award two points to the club responsible and four points to the opposition. In the case of Sale v Worcester, it would have meant two points to Sale and four to Worcester. If we deem a club to be at fault, then they will lose the points.”
There are no complaints about the new normal and fixture congestion from Bristol Bears coach Pat Lam
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Winstanley admitted that there was little or no scope in the calendar for any Covid-affected games to be scheduled for midweek so a panel of Premiership Rugby, Rugby Football Union officials and medics will determine what to do were Covid to cause a match to be under threat.
There were sighs of relief that the season could be given the green light with the latest round of massing testing of almost 1,000 individuals only showing seven positives, five of whom were players.
Baxter admitted to walking on eggshells in the final weeks of last season as the weekly Covid results had the potential to ruin the best-laid plans. At this early juncture there is a real sense, though, of dealing with whatever comes their way, be it the virus or the loss of so many international players to Test duty or to agreed rest periods.
“You have to accept these times and be adaptable,” said Baxter. “The teams that adapt the best will be successful. You have to ignore the negatives and embrace the positives. We may only have had a few weeks off, but this is the shortest season the players will have had.
“And the absence of the Test players means that our academy lads will have the chance to grow very quickly. All this would be much harder, of course, if we had lost both finals.”
The reigning domestic and European champions are the team to beat on both fronts, albeit Baxter admits that if he “had had enough brain cells”, he might have lobbied for his team to have been given a little grace after their exertions and not kick-start the campaign with a Friday trip to the Stoop to take on Harlequins.
Premiership Rugby can at least draw breath after being given such a hearty bail-out (£59 million) from the Government and even though the season opens to the usual spectre of empty stands there is at least relish to be had for fans in that every match is live on BT Sport.
There will be many unfamiliar faces on view due to the competing demands of the Autumn Nations Cup. The Premiership preview remarks of the Bristol director of rugby, Pat Lam, read like a hospital bulletin as he listed a whole host of injuries. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to expect that the Bears will emulate last season’s play-off position with Sunday’s semi-final reprise against Wasps at the Ricoh a good harbinger as to what lies ahead.
There are no excuses to be found in the Bristol camp.
“This is what we have all signed up for and even though the Premiership is a brutal competition, this is what we want,” said Lam.
Sale look in decent order as they continue their growth while Northampton Saints are all too aware that they have to make a good start if they are to banish the blues that set in following their dismal post-lockdown form. London Irish are in new surroundings at Brentford, while Newcastle Falcons will be in action some eight months after their last match in the Championship where Saracens will one day ply their trade.
Their presence will be missed if not mourned.