There are far more important things in life than a few weeks or, perhaps, months without rugby. It is going to be a while before the world returns to something approaching normality, never mind the oval-shaped segment of it. That said, given every major league and tournament on the planet – both club and international – is now affected to some degree, it is already clear rugby’s administrators in both hemispheres are staring into the abyss.
Unlike the upper echelons of top‑level football, rugby is not a sport cosily insulated from the real world. CVC’s investment may change things – potentially at a price if the big fixtures are no longer on free-to-air television – but the game has mostly lived on its wits for the first 25 years of professionalism. When the sums have not quite added up, extra money-spinning games have been added. Should the precise opposite become unavoidable, what next? Costs and wages have risen steadily and even the healthier parts of the sport have already been feeling the pinch. As with the airline industry, rugby feels more vulnerable to the pandemic than most.
It does not exactly help that the northern hemisphere club game’s most lucrative fixtures are scheduled to take place over the next three months. Industry insiders predict “huge consequences” if, for example, the shutdown ends up continuing until the summer. If, as is being suggested, the coronavirus outbreak does not peak in the UK before June, the remainder of the domestic season will effectively be toast.
All this is strictly relative compared with the bigger picture but what do the harassed administrators do? Take the Premiership, for example. With nine rounds of the regular season and the play-offs to be completed, Exeter are five points clear at the top. The organisers are hoping to suspend the league for only five weeks but what if it turns out to be longer? Do they then freeze the standings and reluctantly cancel the rest of the season? With Saracens already relegated it could be a neater-than-usual outcome but what to do about the title? Handing it to Exeter with a large asterisk attached would hardly impress Sale Sharks, Northampton Saints or Bristol Bears; it would not thrill the Chiefs much either.
Alternatively, might they refer the remaining regular season fixtures to some kind of independent pools panel, identify a notional top four and try to reschedule the semi-finals and final at some later date? Instinctively, that also feels unsatisfactory. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, such rescheduled knockout fixtures were held in August or the opening two weeks of September. None of the teams involved would have played any competitive rugby in the preceding six months, some players will have fallen out of contract and moved on in the interim. Would it be truly compelling drama or merely a case of going through the motions?
Then again, imagine the sense of frustration – and the big commercial hit – for teams such as Exeter and Leinster should the rest of the season be declared null and void. Both sit atop their respective league/conference and have earned themselves prized home European quarter-finals. Then again, how much satisfaction is there in a hollow paper title victory, with no wild scenes of dressing-room celebration or bloodied sense of post-whistle achievement? Mentally it may just be easier, if not for those squad members moving on, to park all the mixed emotions and go again next season.
And where does that leave the Championship and the RFU’s other national leagues? Easy enough in the Championship, in theory, where Newcastle Falcons are way clear of everyone else at the top and few could complain if they were awarded the title. But what about the precedent that would set? Take National League Two South where the top four sides – Taunton Titans, Tonbridge Juddians, Henley and Redruth – are separated by just six points with 25 gruelling rounds already played. Those of us who attended Taunton’s game with Esher at the weekend and – full disclosure – have had a family member playing for the Titans first XV this season have been on tenterhooks for weeks. If there has to be an artificial, abbreviated end to the campaign, it will be massively harsh on those missing out.
Behind closed doors? Fine in theory; not much use if a single staff member from either team has to go into self-isolation. Summer rugby? Not unless next season’s programme can also be adjusted to avoid the prospect of 12 solid months of relentless playing and training. Too much rugby can be even worse for your health, mental and physical, than too little. The only certainties are these: no perfect solution exists and the next few months will be character-building.
Six Nations highlights
Hitting the snooze button on the Six Nations has rendered all the customary post-tournament awards redundant but, whatever unfolds in the autumn, it will be hard for anyone to overtake France’s scrum-half Antoine Dupont as player of the championship or Justin Tipuric’s spectacular score for Wales at Twickenham as try of the campaign. Coach of the campaign? At the moment it is arguably a tie between two defence coaches – Scotland’s Steve Tandy and France’s Shaun Edwards – with England’s new forwards coach Matt Proudfoot also making a difference. At least all of the above individuals will remember the ill-starred 2020 championship with some fondness
One to watch
Given there is presently no live rugby to watch, what better time to dust off a few all-time classics to prevent television audiences from collapsing completely. In no particular order I would recommend watching the following modern era games in full: British and Irish Lions v South Africa, second Test 2009; Lions v New Zealand second and third Tests 2017, England v Scotland 2019, the 2019 Premiership final between Saracens and Exeter and the 2011 Heineken Cup final between Leinster and Northampton. There is likely to be plenty of time to dip even further back into the archives in the coming months.