When the time comes that rugby league can shape a fixture list for the rest of 2020, they will have to follow cricket’s lead by prioritising the events that bring in the most money. And that could lead to permanent changes to the game’s structure.
In Super League’s case, they need sufficient fixtures to satisfy Sky and play the Grand Final; for the RFL the essential revenue-generating events are the Challenge Cup Final and England games – without that matchday income and broadcast fees, the governing body would face a cataclysmic scenario. No wonder they have already lodged a request for financial support from the government.
Super League has to be played to secure the TV revenue. For example, if life returns to whatever normal will be on 1 June, there will be 22 weekends until November. Given that some clubs have already played seven league games, a substantial season could still happen. And it needs to happen. With so many clubs reliant on the wealth of generous individual owners, whose businesses could be decimated by the pandemic, most are at serious risk. Hull FC lost more than £250,000 in 2019. What will they lose in 2020? All Super League clubs have already decided to introduce furloughing, mothballing operations during what could be a long lay-off.
As long as Sky keep paying their stipend – just under £150,000 per Super League club per month – players and staff should get their money – eventually. But Sky will demand the content in exchange for their millions, even if it is spread out over the next couple of years. Giving them around 90 live games in 2020 is still possible: instead of the daft scenario of three or four clubs clashing with the TV game on Friday night, Super League could spread five live TV matches from Thursday night to Sunday tea-time every week from June to November, a flatscreen smorgasbord for us league tragics.
Some things will have to go. Magic Weekend at Newcastle seems highly unlikely to go ahead in late May, but it could be pushed back into the summer and used as part of a 22-round home-and-away fixture list, with the six “loop” fixtures abolished. Many clubs have played three of their loop fixtures already, Wakefield, Catalans and Hull just one. A wizard administrator could rearrange fixtures for the weekends when those clubs would now be free. For example, Castleford have already hosted Wigan, so would only need to play them once more, freeing up either round 16 or 25 to play one of the games missed during this break. St Helens would be free in rounds 13, 19 and 27.
The Challenge Cup offers problems and opportunities. Huddersfield are the only SL team knocked out, so the sixth round ties should be the first games played when sport returns. Three more top-flight clubs will go out, possibly more, enabling at least two league games to be played on quarter-final weekend. Alternatively, the next two rounds could be midweek affairs with weakened teams. With luck, flexible attitudes and good planning, between six and nine more Super League games could be played over the semi-final and final weekends, too.
Another couple of weeks could be shaved off the season by the Super League play-offs reverting to top four semi-finals, the winners heading straight to Old Trafford. With the NRL suspended, the Ashes is almost certain to be cancelled. That could allow Super League to run even later although the RFL will surely insist on securing some games for Shaun Wane’s new England team. If the Super League is complete but the NRL is not, England could revitalise the European Championship.
This hiatus could actually help the Super League reshape the competition as they are rumoured to desire: a 14-team league, backed by a 16-team Championship, and the remaining clubs going into a newly aligned third tier. The suggestion of no relegation from the Super League 2020 would trigger the Championship to do the same, meaning the Super League would have 13 teams next season, and the Championship would go up to 15. Repeat that in 2021 and a 14-16 setup would be reached naturally in time for the new TV deal in 2022. What a turn-up!
The only losers would be League 1, where the likes of Newcastle, Barrow and Workington would have two years to get themselves out, Ottawa Aces just one, while New York City – like Ottawa, launched in a blaze of publicity just a few days before the whole show fell apart, would be left out, along with at least seven other League 1 clubs – that’s if every club survives the pandemic.
The sport now has an opportunity to really consider if a national semi-professional third division, stretching from Newcastle to Llanelli, Workington to London, is a sensible thing. A new third tier could end the anachronistic divide between the amateur and professional game. The best National Conference League teams already challenge the weaker League 1 teams on the pitch and many are vastly stronger off it: many amateur clubs run dozens of teams, have hundreds of members, better facilities, bigger crowds and had flourishing income streams.
They also benefit from not spending more than £100,000 a year paying players and transporting them on ludicrous schleps around the country. Regionalised conferences with national play-offs seem a far better idea, perhaps playing from autumn to spring, leaving the summer to the pros again.
With Super League and the Championship potentially starting later in 2021, we could see a permanent shift to the shortened March to October season preferred by so many. Whatever happens, as Hall & Oates sang so sagely: “There’s a lot of changes coming You’ve best be payin’ them some mind”
Another major hurdle in shaping a new fixture list will be fitting in Catalans and Toronto: travel restrictions to and from France and Canada are unlikely to match those in the UK. Group training is banned in France until the middle of April at least, while non-Canadians cannot enter Canada and all flights are grounded until late May. Being based in Rochdale until spring breaks in Ontario could be a major bonus: the Wolfpack may have to play nearly all of their games in England. Given that the Dragons have only played four Super League games, they may struggle to get through their fixture list, whatever that ends up looking like.
Clubcall: Coventry Bears
Some of our game’s smallest clubs may actually benefit from being tadpoles among the tench. Those who only pay players when they play and do not have major outgoings, such as League 1 side Coventry Bears, could ride out the coronavirus storm better than expected.
“Our model is actually well prepared for this because we only pay players as they play,” Coventry owner Alan Robinson told Rugby League Hub. “All our coaches are paid on a sessional basis and I’m the only full-time employee. We only rent the facilities and if we don’t use them we don’t pay for them. We can just down our operation and open again when we need to. We run the club on a very lean basis. Some people think it’s a miracle we survive, but I believe we’re the most sustainable club in the whole of rugby league right now. If we weren’t, we would cease to exist in the next few weeks.”
When Scotland Student international Hector McNeil arrived in London in the mid 1990s and couldn’t find a team to play for, he just started one up. Having already been among the founding members of Scotland Rugby League, he was used to building something from scratch. Student Rugby League Old Boys launched in Hackney and changed their named to London Skolars in 1997 as part of a proposed sponsorship deal with Skol lager that fell through!
They worked their way from the London League to the National Conference to the semi-pro ranks in six whirlwind years, with McNeil moving from hooker to director to CEO. A successful asset manager in the City of London, McNeil brought his 25-year reign to an end on Monday, leaving the club along with octogenarian chairman Terry Browne, a similarly loyal servant. McNeil had been planning to withdraw for a while, but the hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic has hurried that decision. Rugby league in London and the south, and the communities of Haringey and Enfield in particular – and in Ghana, where he has supported the game nascent roots – have an awful look to thank him for.
Fifth and last
While Italy remains in total lockdown with a horrific death toll, playing sport there seems a total irrelevance. The country is worst affected in the north-east, where many Italian rugby league players live and where most of the amateur clubs have been in recent years: Milan, Vicenza, Asti, Padova,Treviso, and their neighbours. Many Italy internationals are holed up now in those villages, towns and cities, unable to leave their homes other than to buy food. No Helmets will bring news from them soon. Meanwhile, our thoughts are with them.