Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter predicts the Gallagher Premiership will continue to produce an abundance of shock results while there is no threat of relegation.
Round 13 saw the top three sides – Saracens, Sale and Harlequins – fall to the bottom three with London Irish, Newcastle and Bristol all prevailing in defiance of the form guide.
Exeter themselves almost came unstuck against underperforming Bath on Christmas Eve but clung on to leave their west-country rivals propping up the table.
Relegation will not return until the 2024-2025 season at the earliest and Baxter believes that removing it has encouraged teams to play with greater ambition.
“The league is so different without relegation – people probably don’t quite realise that,” Baxter said. “A perfect example is when we’ve been to Newcastle when they’ve been in the bottom two. It’s very hard to play with the ambition and desire that they play with now because there’s so much hanging on the result.
“We’ve won some pretty tight games against teams that have been in the bottom two because the game means so much that as it gets to that pressure 10 minutes at the end, they start to make more mistakes than you do.
“That’s actually changed a bit and what you’re seeing is that teams at the bottom of the league can get on with it. They’re not looking over their shoulder, they’re looking upwards all the time. So now you’re never in a scenario where a team aren’t coming after you.
“Some teams in the relegation zone would rest players when they came up against a side they didn’t think they would beat because the next game was against a relegation rival. That doesn’t happen any more because there’s no need to.
“So I think all these competitive results are going to happen more and more often. You’ll see an increasing amount of them.”
Baxter is preparing Exeter for their latest Premiership match against Saracens on New Year’s Eve, after which new law directives designed to speed up the game will come into effect.
These include the enforcement of a shot clock for goal-kicking, reduced use of the TMO and free-kicks awarded for time wasting during events such as scrums and line-outs.
Baxter believes that rugby’s continual tinkering of its rules is “madness”.
“We’re making it impossible to attract supporters because they don’t know what game they’re going to watch,” Baxter said. “We’ve got to decide on something and settle on it for longer periods than we do. And we need to spend longer considering any law changes.
“A lot of times we’re having to change law variations back because six months later they realise we should never have done them. Or they try and tinker with something else. A lot more thought and time needs to go into the changes. It’s almost become part of rugby now that things have to change during the season. It just seems madness to me and we’ve got to get out of it.”
Leicester Tigers head coach, Dan McKellar said: “The group, players and staff were on the go for 23 weeks straight so getting away from the game for a period was really beneficial and we’ve come back in enthused for this challenge this week.
“Ealing are a team full of experience and quality, so we’ll have to be at our best to get the result we want, on a big day for the likes of Hanro and Finn.
“It’s fitting that Hanro leads us on his 100th game. He carried a lot of the leadership burden during the World Cup and continues to be someone the boys can count on to lead with his actions.”
Scott MacLeod is returning to Newcastle Falcons as line-out coach, with the former Scotland lock on board until at least the end of the season.
The Hawick native spent 11 years with the Falcons, making 61 appearances as a player before joining the coaching team in 2016.
Having departed Kingston Park last summer MacLeod will now return to impart his expertise, combining coaching commitments with working for his family’s business in the Scottish Borders.
Newcastle Falcons’ consultant director of rugby Steve Diamond said: “Scott is a well-respected line-out specialist who can help us make some big gains in that area between now and the end of the season.
“He knows and loves the club, he’s very well regarded here and I’m looking forward to getting him back involved.
“We’ve initially said it’s until the end of the season and I know Scott has other business commitments, but if it works well for both parties over the next few months then we’ll be happy to look at extending it beyond that.”
Capped 24 times by Scotland in a playing career which also saw him starring for Border Reivers, Edinburgh, Scarlets, Kobelco Steelers and Newcastle, the set-piece specialist is relishing the prospect of reinvigorating the Falcons’ line-out during the remainder of the season.
MacLeod said: “Our line-out has consistently been in the top four of the Premiership over the past few years, so hopefully I can come in and help get us back up there.
“I’ve been watching the games from afar this season because Newcastle Falcons is still a big part of my life, even though I’ve not been personally involved since the summer. I just want to come in and make a positive difference, get us back to where we should be and help the boys.”
Having spent more than a decade at Kingston Park as a player and coach, MacLeod insisted the opportunity to return was just too good to pass up.
“I’ve missed the place a lot,” said the 44-year-old.
“I’m now working for my family’s business, MacLeod Glass, up in Hawick, but I’m sure any sportsperson will tell you they miss being in and around that team environment. It’s certainly very different going from a Premiership rugby club to working in a factory every day, and it’s been a shock to the system.
“I’ll now get to combine both, and I’ve missed being involved with the professional game. I’ve been coaching my son’s S2 side to get my rugby fix, but I’m buzzing to be back with the Falcons. It’s a really special club for me.”
Setting out with one clear aim, the Scot said: “I just want us to get our identity back.
“I’ll come in, assess our strengths and our weaknesses and come up with a plan accordingly. I know some of the players really well and I don’t know others at all, but luckily with us having this big break before our next game it’s absolutely ideal timing for getting things in place.
“One thing you have to bear in mind with Newcastle is how bad the weather is, in terms of how much you can push it in the line-out, but I just want to get the confidence back into the boys.
“It’s about simple things being done well on a consistent basis, and I’m starting this week to help put it in motion.
“I’ve got a few weeks to get to know the guys I’ve not worked with before, see how it all ties in with the lads I already know and then knit it all together into a game plan which works best for the team.
“As I say, I just want us to have that Newcastle Falcons identity again when it comes to the line-out, and I’m really positive about things. We’ll see how it works between now and the end of the season, and if everyone’s happy then we can see where it goes.”
Newcastle Falcons’ next home game is against Leicester Tigers on Good Friday (March 29), with tickets on sale for the 7.45pm kick-off by clicking here.