Rugby’s annus horribilis shows little obvious sign of easing. For the time being all roads no longer lead to Rome and the best-case scenario involves the Six Nations – both male and female – dribbling to a belated conclusion in the autumn. There are far more important things in life than a few postponed rugby matches but for the tournament organisers the real headaches are only just starting.
Things will be appreciably simpler should the other remaining fixtures, not least France v Ireland on Saturday week, take place as scheduled but it might be wise not to bet the chateau on that just yet. The current coronavirus outbreak, if nothing else, has once again shown how unfeasibly tight the modern rugby calendar has been allowed
Back in 2001, when the foot and mouth crisis forced all three of Ireland’s home fixtures to be postponed until September and October, it was still vaguely possible to find a spare Saturday without much else happening on the domestic front. Now, with England’s relentless Gallagher Premiership stretching from 12 Sept to 26 June next season, there is next to no leeway, with perhaps only two vaguely practicable dates on which to replay the Italy v England men’s fixture between now and Christmas.
The first is Saturday 27 June, which is not absolutely ideal given England and the Azzurri are both due to be embarking on tour to Japan and the United States respectively around that date. It may be those tours do not, ultimately, go ahead as scheduled but, in any event, there would be a heap of scheduling issues to overcome with the European football championship set to be at the round of 16 phase. A more convenient date might be 31 October, the week before the November Tests begin, with English players already in line to be spared from club duty that weekend ahead of their looming clash with New Zealand at Twickenham the following week.
So that’s that sorted, then? Not so fast. While Eddie Jones’s side might theoretically fancy a hit out in Rome before the All Blacks arrive in London, it would commit England to playing five Tests on successive weekends, with many of their squad members also required for the opening two rounds of the European Champions’ Cup on the preceding two weekends. Yes, the team could potentially be rotated for the Tonga game but, from a player welfare perspective, it would sit uneasily, merely another example of the game’s guardians trying to squeeze a quart into an already patched-up pint pot.
Blindly following the money, however, is the recurring habit to which rugby seems increasingly addicted. Back in the 1970s, when not every team travelled to Ireland because of the political situation, the organisers were resigned to the championship remaining an unfinished symphony. Not any more. The Six Nations is the northern hemisphere’s ultimate cash cow and calling off games has sizeable financial ramifications from a gate income and sponsorship perspective.
Even if France do get to play their final two games against Scotland and Ireland, furthermore, there is also the not inconsiderable matter of prize money. Any men’s team winning a grand slam is set to win £6m, with the side finishing second claiming £3.5m and the third-placed country collecting £2.5m. Hence why all the unions are desperate to get the games played – and to win them – if at all possible.
Add to that the ramifications in terms of world ranking positions ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, with the pool draw to be made in late November, and a philosophical, laissez-faire shrug of the shoulders from the unions involved becomes even less likely, regardless of the extra strain on the players. It is entirely possible that someone like Courtney Lawes might be required to play a full nine-month club season for Northampton, incorporating European games, plus 10 Tests (the postponed Italy game included) before heading off on a Lions tour which does not end until 7 August 2021. Those at the Rugby Football Union currently focussing on recouping the Rome hospitality package money they will have to repay following next weekend’s postponement should spare a thought for their gladiators.
It is, in fairness, a devilishly tricky set of circumstances for any administrator to unpick. There is still the Ireland v Italy game to be fitted in somewhere, too, with no easy solution as presented itself in 2012 when a frozen Parisian pitch prevented France v Ireland from happening on the scheduled date. On that occasion there were “fallow” weekends available, not a luxury currently available with the championship almost over.
You could argue the Six Nations has simply found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time, as did Rugby World Cup’s organisers when Typhoon Hagibis swept through Japan last autumn. Pandemics and tropical storms do not stop to examine the fixture list. Trouble, however, seems to be following rugby around more and more and exposing scheduling fault lines that might otherwise be overlooked. The Greatest Championship? As the endless rain hammers down and the coronavirus bulletins keep coming, few will recall this year’s ill-starred tournament with much affection.