Ok, so it’s not quite as catchy as ‘STOP THE COUNT’, but we can’t all have the amount of screws loose that Donald Trump has.
It is time to do something about where the current rugby season in the Northern Hemisphere is heading though, as coronavirus rates in particularly the United Kingdom surge with the peak of winter approaching and a mass vaccination programme on the horizon.
Over the last few weeks we have seen the picture change rugby and society-wise when it comes to the virus, largely thanks to a new strain that has been discovered to be up to 70% more transmissible and forced tier four lockdowns in all of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland either immediately or from Boxing Day.
Italy has also gone into a new lockdown, although that isn’t believed to be linked to the UK strain, and it’s no surprise that with all this happening over the last few weeks that European rugby has been severely impacted this last fortnight, with six games unable to be played and a number of others impacted by isolating players.
It begs the question whether it’s the right time to re-assess the 2020/21 season for professional rugby in the Northern Hemisphere, and particularly for professional rugby in Wales, for three reasons.
Firstly, the welfare of the players and their families has to be paramount. Many have family members who will be in high risk categories, and in the week that it was revealed two Newcastle United FC players have been out for a month with Long Covid, it’s important to remember the virus can cause serious health problems for even fit and healthy professional athletes.
Secondly, putting a pause on the season would allow sides in the UK, and particularly Welsh sides who have yet to be guaranteed any Welsh Government support, to take advantage of the furlough scheme and secure the jobs of the playing staff and coaches. After 4-6 weeks they can then return and hopefully, with spring approaching and vaccinations increasing we will be closer to supporters being back.
Finally, competition integrity is being severely impacted by the cancellations and subsequent 28-0 bonus point victories being handed out due to the virus. If we see two more weekends like those just gone in January, then the Heineken and Challenge Cup pool stages will effectively be decided on the basis of who has the least covid in their squad, rather than who has the best squad.
On top of that there are accusations that French sides are effectively using the virus as an excuse not to participate, and complaints are being made about the seriousness with which sides are taking the regulations put in place by competition organisers EPCR.
In the Guinness Pro14 we have already seen the cancellation of the first 1872 Cup match between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and Ulster’s game against Munster on the 27th December, meanwhile all of the Welsh Boxing Day derbies are likely to be impacted by the absence of players having to isolate due to positive tests or being close contacts.
On top of that decreasing quality, cross border games are set to restart in mid-January, and get going properly in early February, with the risk presented by the travel required to complete the league increasing each day the virus spreads more rapidly.
The solution seems, to me at least, to be a relatively simple one. Logistically challenging, yes, but achievable and one that will be better for the game in the long run. I fear though that the blazers too selfish and downright dull to make it happen.
It starts with pushing both the Six Nations and Lions Tour back. We saw how dreadful international rugby was without supporters in the Autumn, we don’t need a repeat of that in February and March. Play it across July and start of August when supporters should be back in stadiums at least in limited numbers and ensure it remains a proper spectacle.
This would then allow the club season to be restarted after a suspension on the first weekend of March, running up until the end of June, encompassing the completion of league campaigns and European competitions, again hopefully with supporters starting to return in a limited capacity.
The Lions Tour would then take place the following summer in 2022. As things stand it is very difficult to see South Africa being ready to host the tour this July, with recent reports suggesting the country would only start receiving vaccines in the second quarter of 2021 and that there would only be enough for 3% of the population.
It is unlikely either the Unions that make up the Lions or the South African Rugby Union would be keen to see the tour take place in front of anything other than sold out stadiums with a full travelling contingent of British and Irish fans due to the economic boost the SARU and South Africa as a whole are set to gain from that.
Nudging it back to 2022 allows the Lions Tour to go ahead as usual with everyone’s coffers filled, frees up space to push this season’s Six Nations back and give the club campaign breathing space in which to manoeuvre for the good of it’s competitions and the health of players and their families.
Is that really so difficult to understand and implement?