Every household in the world is currently playing the same game. Where would you most like to go when all this is over? How does the future ideally look? Never have there been so many blank sheets of paper, full of endless possibilities if the owner of the biro has the imagination.
It should theoretically suit rugby union better than most, given the amount of inky splodges, crossings-out and redrafts generated by the first 25 years of professionalism. Let’s be honest: which aspects of rugby’s global fixture calendar work entirely smoothly or are guaranteed to be bigger and better in 10 years time? Not many, as we currently sit here.
Which is why listening to Sir Bill Beaumont’s post-victory speech following his re-election as World Rugby’s chairman prompted a faint sense of unease. Sir Bill is among the most solid and clubbable of rugby men and wants nothing less than the best for his sport. The problem is that “steady as she goes” is not the ideal mantra for the cliff-edge upon which rugby currently teeters.
Sir Bill’s piece of paper is also far from blank. No, the Six Nations won’t be budging from its February-March slot and, no, there won’t be any big push for gate revenue sharing with poorer southern hemisphere nations. If it stays that way there is no real possibility of a brave new world, merely an extension of the fudging and back-scratching with which rugby remains associated. The clubs will be invited to stay in their box – or rebel – and international players will continue to be pulled between two demanding masters to ensure the show stays on the road. Assuming, of course, there is still a financially viable show and sufficient unions are still afloat.
Even the circulating proposals to create a so-called Nations League were being doodled on the backs of old envelopes years ago. In those days weekly long-haul air travel was a given, player wellbeing was less of a priority and the term “carbon footprint” was someone else’s problem. To listen to some of the proposals suggesting England should go and play successive rat-a-tat Test matches in Japan, South Africa and Argentina in October is to wonder whether anyone has looked at an atlas lately. Even Bear Grylls would struggle with that itinerary and he doesn’t have to do any scrummaging.
No, rugby has to begin by remembering what makes it such a great sport. Its fixture planners need to stop jumping about like grasshoppers on acid and work out what really matters. Personally, the first piece in the jigsaw, apart from the World Cup, would be the British and Irish Lions which offers pretty much everything to which the game should be aspiring: camaraderie, adventure, colour, romance, mass interest and rarity value. Lock it in on a four-yearly basis but with Asia and/or the Americas hosting it once every 16 years and proper preparation time guaranteed. Make it a tour, not a business trip, and the charm will be real and enduring.
When should it happen? There is logic – as long as the club and European competitions are involved in the debate – in combining the existing July and November international windows between late September and early November when World Cups are already staged. Which means that, two years in every four, there is a chance to do something meaningful which, hopefully, makes some money. Let’s call it the Lomu Shield: a big name for a big idea. Held biennially in either the northern or southern hemisphere, it would involve three pools of four – with seedings based on finishing positions from the previous spring’s Six Nations and Rugby Championship – with the three pool winners and the best runner-up advancing to the semi-finals and a grand final at a pre-arranged venue. The other eight sides would compete for places five to 12, with the bottom-placed side playing off against the top emerging nation side from their own hemisphere (Japan, for the purposes of this argument, would be aligned with the south).
Not quite the proposed Nations League, then, and not quite a pale World Cup imitation either. There would be an element of relegation jeopardy but the whole thing would be marketable and hook in every region. Buy into it and the rest of the pieces start falling into shape. If the Six Nations were to happen in April and early May would that really be so terrible? Away supporters would still travel, it would be played in better weather on firmer surfaces and showcase the sport at its finest. It would also intersect with the Rugby Championship down south, with the latter reaching a climax a fortnight or so later. No point having too much of a good thing and clashing with the Six Nations finale.
All of which means less disruption to the north’s domestic competitions which, Six Nations aside, would be handed a clear run from mid-November to July. A 24-team two-division British League, a revitalised European Champions’ Cup, a world club championship? Arguing over the precise details are currently less important than everyone pulling together for the common good and prioritising a clear, manageable structured season for the players. There would also be more room for women’s rugby, the grassroots game and sevens. The women’s Six Nations in September and October? Sevens as a summer sport? The current Championship and National League One reinvented as a heartland tournament that grips the national imagination? What about Wales or England touring Georgia, Russia and Romania in a Lions year, or New Zealand’s up and comers playing midweek club tour matches in the UK and France? Suddenly there is a brighter glow on the horizon even in these desperately uncertain times.
Gone but not forgotten
Spare a thought for players coming to the end of their careers whose lingering farewell wave to their faithful fans has been replaced by enforced isolation and thoughtful goodbye messages on social media. The latest long-serving couple, the great Georgian Mamuka Gorgodze and Leinster’s Fergus McFadden (assuming he has played his final game), can at least be reassured the whole rugby world is applauding from a distance in recognition of their unstinting contribution to their respective teams.
One to watch
Talking of upcoming rugby events in Britain, step forward the Union Cup, Europe’s premier LGBTQ+ tournament, which is due to be held in Birmingham in May 2021. Birmingham will be the event’s ninth host city following Dublin in 2019. “As rugby pitches around the world lie empty, the Union Cup Birmingham 2021 is a shining light at the end of the tunnel for LGBT+ rugby players across Europe,” says Ben Owen, chairperson at International Gay Rugby. “We look forward to working with Birmingham Bulls to make it the biggest celebration of diversity in rugby the UK has ever seen.”