In such uncertain and unprecedented times, it seems trivial to be discussing the resumption of rugby. More important issues come before sport, yet the resurrection of the sporting calendar is matter of sink or swim for many clubs and organisations. Rugby is in a more perilous position than most, losses just shy of £50 million in 2018 has shone a light on the fragility of rugby clubs in England. But, when all is said and done, just how does rugby restart?
With 13 rounds of the 2019/20 Premiership season played to date, each team still has nine games remaining. Add in the two play offs, the final, the Premiership Rugby Cup, and the European knock out stages, you have got a lot of rugby on the table. It has been made clear that the European competition will reach its conclusion, with October finals targeted. As for the domestic season in England, the only sufficient option would be to declare the season null and void. It is not safe for rugby to return, and it shouldn’t be rushed into a resumption to finish the season.
Under this plan, a final table can be produced by calculating the average points gained in each home and away game so far, and then added onto current points tallies. The final table would then relegate Saracens, while promoting Newcastle Falcons back to the Premiership. The top four should then play a round robin series of games, with the top two teams of the four getting two home games and one away game, and the other teams playing away twice. This miniature, four team, competition would act as a pre-season competition for the 2020/21 season, the winner getting a trophy to recognise their achievement, though this would not be the Premiership trophy. Similar competitions could be played for teams placed fifth to eighth, and ninth to 11th, with Newcastle involved.
The 2020/21 Premiership Rugby Cup should be scrapped. Player welfare is more important than ever and limiting player’s exposure to other teams would be beneficial. The Cup only forces players to play more games, and it is therefore an unnecessary risk. In addition to this, the European competition should be postponed for a season. International travel is likely to still be a barrier to cross-border sporting competitions until the end of 2020, and the delay to round one of the competition could lead to a final in the middle of the 2021/22 pre-season. That being said, if the European competition goes ahead, it should call on the last fully completed season from each of the three major leagues to decide its participants. This season’s Premiership Rugby Cup final between Sale Sharks and Harlequins could be played at the latter stages of next season, as both finalists were confirmed during the 2019/20 regular season.
There will be changes to matchdays in the 2020/21 season, that is for sure. Leinster have already conceded that their 12,000+ capacity stadium is unlikely to have fans for their next campaign. This does however allow for everybody involved in the game to play with the best possible systems in place to ensure safety. Premiership Rugby should consider increasing the size of a matchday squad to upwards of 25 players, while maintaining the permitted eight substitutions. This would allow coaches and doctors to identify players under strain and remove them from the field and would lower playing time for each player.
It is also paramount for tests to be carried out on players, officials, and staff while ensuring a system for which medical professionals are able to identify and act on fatigue or concussion symptoms.International fixtures are a different matter, involving cross-border travel and larger squad needs. Unless the restrictions on travel and sport are reduced significantly, there wouldn’t be a major benefactor of these fixtures going ahead. Grassroots clubs rely largely on union profits, and the lack of them will be detrimental to the survival of many local entities. Funding these clubs is paramount to rugby’s growth, but without the gate receipts from internationals, these matches are rendered somewhat unnecessary.
Premiership Rugby could take this time, where players are taking cuts and staff being furloughed, to seriously discuss changes to the cap. Whether the cap is reduced as a whole, marquee players removed, or the cap maintained, the finances of rugby have been changed permanently, and it is paramount for clubs to survive this uncertain period.
Finally, the British and Irish Lions tour must go ahead rather than delayed until 2022, assuming it is safe to do so. Scrapping the Premiership Rugby Cup and having a reduced European calendar could in fact benefit the welfare of players before the tour to South Africa. A delayed tour could be catastrophic to World Rugby, South Africa, and the Home Unions, as well as the Unions that indirectly receive some of the profits. The Lions encapsulates rugby, and the tour is a great chance to open rugby to the world, when our eyes are captivated by any live sport.
The 2019/20 season should be over, whether fans like it or not. Time should be taken to protect players and ensure the resumption of rugby takes place only when it is safe to do so. This unprecedented period has thrown the rugby routine into the air, and this could be the best chance to change how rugby is played. A global calendar? A revised European competition? A nations league? These are all topics which can be discussed and resolved while the regular calendar is in tatters. Scrap the premiership rugby cup, open discussions on Premiership finances, and protect the Lions tour to South Africa.
By Matt Hardy
This article was recently published in the Summer 2020 issue of Rugby Blindside.
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