You know it’s summer when, due to the lack of rugby action, journalists are forced to wheel out back-page stories in the shape of hypotheticals, ‘top tens’ and ‘what-ifs’. Articles that have caught my eye in the last couple of weeks include:
But if summer is usually a time for ‘fantasy rugby’, there’s one recent story that has the potential to change world rugby as we know it. Just after the sensational Lions series win in Australia, the International Rugby Players’ Association (IRPA) announced a proposal for the southern and northern hemisphere rugby calendars to become integrated in a bid to improve player welfare. The plans (publicly backed by Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton and All Black captain Richie McCaw) include moving the June ‘test window’ to the end of July, to allow the Super Rugby season to be concluded. The proposal also talks of a later start to European domestic campaigns, possibly October. Such changes (which could come into force as early as 2016) would theoretically prevent the fielding of weakened teams – a problem that was so prevalent during the recent Lions Tour. But with all options still on the table, (including the possibility of a new European competition to replace the Heineken Cup), how would you structure a global rugby season? This week, the blog delves into fantasy land to try and come up with the ultimate rugby calendar.
In an ideal world, the rugby season would comprise of tournament ‘blocks’ with competitions toward the end of the season being more prestigious/advanced than those at the beginning. In a northern hemisphere context this would mean playing the domestic leagues between September and end of December, the Heineken Cup (or equivalent) from January to the end of March, the Six Nations in April/May and a home and away series of international matches in the summer months (to be replaced by a World Cup every four years). For the southern hemisphere this type of season would start in their summer months (November and December) with provincial competitions. The Super 15 would come next (between January and April) before the Rugby Championship kicks into life around May. The season would be concluded with the same home and away international series or World Cup.
Such a season would have some benefits. For a start, it would finally end the practice of players running out for their country more than their contracted club. It could also mean increased attendances for domestic sides as fans won’t have the temptation to wait for the international window before buying a ticket to a rugby game. A ‘blocked’ season also has a logical progression to it, culminating (every four years) in the World Cup. In all likelihood though, this arrangement will never come into being for two reasons: firstly, TV companies prefer domestic competitions to stretch over the length of the season to maintain interest in their channel and sustain subscription revenue. Secondly, it would seem that the IRB has settled on the Rugby World Cup being hosted in September and October. Rugby’s top body believes that hosting the tournament at this time of year maximises potential revenue from attendances and TV coverage. Until these obstacles are negotiated, it seems that a ‘blocked’ season running from September to June/July is probably a no-go.
So what about a shift away from the traditional playing months? Rugby League made such a move in 1996 with the formation of Super League. That decision saw League move away from the football-inspired schedule (starting in August/September) to a season that ran more in line with a good, old-fashioned Gregorian calendar. Union could follow suit and begin the season in January with some proper winter, ding-dong domestic games followed by European competitions and international matches in the spring/summer. The season would culminate with the IRB preferred World Cup around October time. But that still wouldn’t answer the problem of the TV schedules and their preference for longer competitions.
Another option is to keep our current season (with all its overlapping competitions) but to simply shift it to run from January to October. This would bring the northern hemisphere into line with their southern counterparts in one swift move, but I don’t think the fans would buy into it. For your hardened European rugby fan, the colder months are for watching rugby – something to keep you occupied during the seemingly endless dark days of winter. If rugby union became a ‘summer’ game there would suddenly be a large gap in many a fans’ schedule come November and December. We’d probably all go mad. Furthermore, there’s plenty to do in the summer months – rugby would only get in the way (as my girlfriend tells me it increasingly does now)! I wonder how Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English supporters would feel about a Six Nations tournament played in June also? The standard of rugby would probably improve, but something about it just doesn’t seem right. Guinness and sun cream anyone?
So is there an answer? To be honest, probably not. I notice that the proposal from the IRPA is pretty modest and I guess it would have to be if it’s got any chance of being accepted. Even this comparatively small request may not succeed because of the external factors (TV etc.) mentioned earlier. I hope the proposals are eventually adopted as they will hopefully resolve the current, unbalanced, nature of test matches where touring sides play at the end of their respective seasons. But there are bigger questions at play here – questions that could be answered by a more radical restructuring of the global season: player welfare, the conflict between international and domestic competitions; development of smaller international sides, global interpretation of rugby laws and improving the quality of the international game.
To an extent rugby, as a global sport, is still trying to catch up with the game it wants to be nearly twenty years after the advent of professional rugby. The sport has ‘made do’ with the situation it has found itself in up to this point. But the IRPA proposals do at least provide an opportunity to debate the structure of the rugby season and it’s a chance the game’s main actors shouldn’t pass up. They’ll have to be quick though – with the future of the Heineken Cup needing to addressed as a matter of urgency, it may not be too long before a new European competition emerges with its own calendar and the global rugby season settles into the fudge that it has become accustomed to. But what do you think? How would you shape the rugby calendar? As ever, comments below.
The blog returns in two weeks’ time.