Visits from Rishi Sunak and watching Luke Littler: How Premiership clubs spent eight-week break

Gloucester Rugby Club Captain Lewis Ludlow presents Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with a number 10 team shirt during a visit to Gloucester Rugby Club, in Gloucester, Britain
Gloucester welcomed the Prime Minister to Kingsholm - Reuters/Leon Neal

When the Premiership clubs reached the end of January, they were running on fumes.

A mammoth sequence, widely termed as “brutal”, started before the World Cup and comprised 22 games on consecutive weekends, taking us to the Six Nations. The extended Nations break, new this year after the respective demises of Worcester Warriors, Wasps and London Irish across the 2022-23 campaign, would have been welcome.

Now, the Premiership is poised to resume after an unfamiliar, eight-week pause. As a mark of the league’s competitiveness and unpredictability, only seven points separate Harlequins, currently in second, and eighth-placed Bristol Bears.

A gruelling marathon will give way to a decisive sprint. One senior club source described this next stage as “a short, intense block that is going to fly by in what will feel like minutes.” We dig into how clubs have managed the hiatus.

Holidays and conditioning weeks

“Who’s got it right, who’s got it wrong?” pondered Pat Lam, the Bristol director of rugby, this week, “We’ll find out.”

There is always a sense of trepidation at the end of a summer, because nobody can quite be sure how pre-season training will translate to the pitch. The same is true of this break.

Rest and recuperation was clearly vital, but teams have split up the pause in different ways. Some opted for a 10-day holiday before bringing their squads back for an extended ‘pre-season’. Others broke things up with two separate weeks off at different points across the two months. Skiing remained off limits to players, but more than one coach, including Phil Dowson, hit the slopes.

Gloucester were chasing Premiership Cup silverware, with a semi-final on the weekend of February 17 and the decider on March 15. They had a second week off following the semi-final, which coincided with George Skivington and Dom Waldouck going on sabbatical to coach England A against Portugal.

Gloucester's Head Coach George Skivington during the Premiership Rugby Cup Final match between Gloucester Rugby and Leicester Tigers at Kingsholm Stadium on March 15, 2024 in Gloucester, England
George Skivington took time away from Gloucester to coach England A - Getty Images/Bob Bradford

Skivington copped criticism for assuming the England A role given Gloucester’s league struggles. A 23-13 win over Leicester Tigers in the Premiership Cup final, landing a first trophy in nine years, will have quietened the critics.

A lack of Six Nations call-ups will have helped Skivington with continuity. Gloucester and Newcastle Falcons only contributed two players each to training squads during the tournament. On the other end of the spectrum, Northampton Saints and Harlequins had nine players each, with Bath on a whopping 12. Exeter Chiefs, interestingly, had eight players representing four different countries. You might have read about that in Tony Rowe’s rather punchy open letter.

Dedicated conditioning weeks, characterised by hard graft, have been a necessary evil; not least because regular training weeks between September and January had tapered off in intensity. Harlequins jetted off to Browns Sports Resort in Vilamoura. “We thought it’d be fun… but it was actually f------ hard,” admitted Stephan Lewies, the club captain, on Tuesday.

Coaches have been able to delve into data analysis and interrogate tactics to a degree that is impossible during a normal campaign. To keep things fresh and to maintain a buzz, clubs have mixed it up. Bristol welcomed Ospreys for a joint session and Harlequins travelled to Cardiff for a similar venture. Chiefs enjoyed a darts night at the Exeter leg of the Premier League, watching Luke Littler and co.

“We tweaked the week accordingly,” laughed Ali Hepher. “The priority was the social.”

Tune-up matches

A two-month hole in fixture lists will have concerned commercial and executive departments around the country. The organisation of friendly matches was handy for cash flow as well as priming players. Teams in the Premiership Cup semi-finals were put in the slightly awkward position of not knowing whether they would have one or two matches guaranteed, a problem that should be less tricky in non-World Cup years.

Bristol hosted the touring Crusaders on February 9 before ousting Bedford Blues in an 87-point thriller at Goldington Road on March 1. Exeter lost in the Premiership Cup semi-final but registered high-scoring friendly wins over Scarlets and the Royal Navy either side of that.

Sale Sharks and Newcastle met in the Steve Diamond Derby too, while Jerry Flannery’s final match as Harlequins defence coach, before joining the Springboks, was a meeting with Munster that attracted 9,500 spectators. Harlequins and Munster share a sponsor in DHL, which aided logistics.

Ben Bamber of Sale Sharks runs is tackled by Jamie Blamire of Newcastle Falcons during a Club Friendly match between Sale Sharks and Newcastle Falcons at AJ Bell Stadium on March 08, 2024 in Salford, England
Sale and Newcastle looked to add match sharpness in a friendly - Getty Images/Jan Kruger

Saracens and Bath both beat Leinster at home, the former indebted to a Theo McFarland masterclass. Bath fielded a strong team last Friday, bringing back Ben Spencer from England duty for a try-scoring appearance off the bench. Will Muir bagged a brace, each of them from cross-kicks, in a 20-minute cameo that underpinned a 35-7 thrashing. Tom de Glanville epitomised the risks of these matches. He requires surgery on a broken foot and will now miss 10 weeks or so.

Northampton blew the cobwebs off in a 45-29 loss to the Stormers before overturning Sale.

Replenished squads and keeping momentum

Saints might have been happy to keep rolling through February and March. Phil Dowson’s side is on a winning run of 10 matches in the Premiership and Champions Cup, earning them a seven-point buffer at the top of the domestic table. How they bid to regather momentum will be crucial, because adversaries must have been plotting ways to hunt them down. A trip to Ashton Gate represents a slippery banana skin.

On the other hand, Northampton’s injury catalogue has eased. A back-three shortage that saw Rory Hutchinson at full-back against Newcastle is no longer. George Hendy wore number 15 for the Sale friendly, having recovered from the knee problem that derailed his excellent start to the season, with James Ramm on the wing and Tom Seabrook benching. Dowson can afford to take his time to reintegrate Tommy Freeman, who has jetted to Dubai for some well-deserved down-time.

“You can’t bulls--- them unless your name is Donald Trump or Boris Johnson,” said Sam Vesty, the Northampton head coach, this week. “The focus is always on our performance. We occasionally look at the league table but it is a case of if we play our league game really well this is where we can get. It is always about what we put on the pitch. It is not about winning.”

Tommy Freeman of England scores his team's fourth try whilst being tackled by Damian Penaud of France during the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between France and England at Groupama Stadium on March 16, 2024 in Lyon, France
Northampton's refreshed squad will be able to cope better with the break given to Tommy Freeman following his stint with England - Getty Images/David Rogers

Even if they are only one win short of the play-off spots on a tight ladder, Sale are in seventh and need impetus. Fortunately for Alex Sanderson, he has Bevan Rodd, Simon McIntyre, Nic Schonert, Jean-Luc du Preez, Raffi Quirke, Tom O’Flaherty and Joe Carpenter all fit again. Gloucester will hope that Premiership Cup silverware can spur them, while Newcastle are aiming to salvage pride from the finale. Steve Diamond’s steel will surely firm them up, if the 31-28 win over Sale is anything to go by. Jack van Poortvliet, who damaged ankle ligaments in mid-August during a World Cup warm-up against Wales, and withdrew from the England squad to let in Alex Mitchell, will come off the bench for Leicester on Friday evening, ending a six-month lay-off.

Billy Millard, the Harlequins director of rugby, said that internationals such as Danny Care and Marcus Smith have lifted their peers upon returning from Six Nations duty. Millard themes sections of the season to present a narrative to his players. He has not needed to be too imaginative for this upcoming block, which involves pivotal league encounters against Saracens and Bath before a last-16 Champions Cup tie against Glasgow Warriors. It has been labelled, simply, as “defining”.

Ins and outs

Diamond is a conspicuous addition to the Premiership, and his move to bring line-out specialist Scott MacLeod back into Newcastle’s coaching team is a canny one. Clubs have had scope to focus on recruitment and retention as well. Ross Molony and Guy Pepper are handy signings for Bath, who have also picked up Regan Grace, the former rugby league star.

Nicky Smith, the Ospreys loosehead prop, looks to be an inspired addition for Leicester Tigers, who have also added Izaia Perese, the dynamic Waratahs centre. Gloucester have picked up Tomos Williams, Gareth Anscombe and Christian Wade.

Josh Kemeny, the Melbourne Rebels workhorse, is headed to Northampton and Saracens are bolstering their stable of loosehead props with Phil Brantingham and Rhys Carré, which all but confirms Mako Vunipola’s exit. Waisea Nayacalevu will add an edge to Sale’s attack, with his Fiji colleague Bill Mata off to Bristol. All of these moves will happen over the summer, but Will Rigg traded Coventry for Exeter at the start of February. The centre’s development will be well worth tracking.

Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes, André Esterhuizen, Jasper Wiese, Manu Tuilagi and Lewis Ludlam are among those to have finalised moves away, with Mateo Carreras ending his sparkling stint in Newcastle with immediate effect. In brighter news, however, Saracens keeping hold of Juan Martín González is hugely positive not just for their rebuild but for the Premiership as a whole.

A special visit

Covid loans have been a serious concern for clubs and Premiership Rugby has endeavoured to engage the Government in a bid to alter repayment plans. There had been little breakthrough until March 13 when Richard Graham, the MP for Gloucester, stood up in the House of Commons to brand the current repayment plans as “crippling” and to ask Rishi Sunak to find a solution. The very next day, the Prime Minister was at Kingsholm, which – hopefully – bodes well for progress.

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