Rugby Union is at a pivotal moment in it’s history, with the Coronavirus pandemic offering the perfect opportunity to set the game on a course for success over the coming years.
It’s easy to forget that unlike many other major sports in the countries that rugby is played in, the game is still very young as a professional sport. Football and Rugby League have been professional since the 19th century, and Cricket since the 1960s, while Rugby Union waited until 1995 to make it official.
In the last 25 years it’s been a difficult transition for rugby as it has struggled with a seeming desire to maintain the feel of an amateur sport in a professional arena. Men in blazers who act like 1970s committee men rather than 21st century business men running the game in a haphazard fashion.
There has been plenty of tinkering in that time. International windows have shifted and lengthened, club competitions have come and gone, with all sorts of shifting done by particularly the Celtic nations and the Southern Hemisphere countries.
Now though it’s becoming obvious roughly what rugby should look like around the world, in terms of a global calendar that ends the conflict between the club and international game and gets everyone working towards strengthening both.
A report in the Sunday Times and the words of newly re-elected World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont point us towards the fact that the game is about to go through a huge change, and hopefully it will be for the better.
One thing has struck me though, when it comes to the comments of many blazers, pundits and players when it comes to formulating this new global season; nobody mentions involving the supporters.
I’ve written many times on this blog about how supporters are often neglected in the world of rugby. Whether it’s individual clubs involving supporters in their off-field business, competitions delaying fixture announcements or kick-off times verging on the ridiculous, we are often an after-thought, if that.
A new global season is likely to see a big change in the make-up of the season, with the start of the season potentially delayed from August/September until November/December in the Northern Hemisphere, while Southern Hemisphere supporters would see the season brought forward from February/March.
In order to get it right and make any substantial change a success then it will need the cooperation and support of those of us who attend games week-in, week-out. As my favourite saying goes ‘rugby without supporters is nothing’.
Yes the big money will come from television broadcasters and sponsors, but they will not be keen to broadcast and sponsor any competitions that are played in empty grounds with no atmosphere.
When people talking about a global season refer to ‘ensuring all stakeholders are on board with what is trying to be achieved’ that has to include the supporters too. Then it’s for supporters to compromise and play our part.
Obviously we all enjoy the season running roughly from September to May as it always has done, but if that has to change for the betterment of the game so be it, allowing the Pro14, or hopefully a new British and Irish League, the chance to play in two fixture blocks between December and July without interruption from the international game.
The Coronavirus is obviously a dreadful situation and there is much more at stake than rugby at the moment, but it does offer the game the chance to make a significant change and set it on a solid footing for the future.
We are unlikely to have an opportunity like this again, let’s work together and not waste it!