The Global Rugby Season - Yes or No?

On 30th June World Rugby held a vote on plans to form a global season. On the table was a proposal to align the northern hemisphere season to the southern hemisphere season allowing for Internationals to be played in specific windows where all the top players were free to play without impacting on domestic competition.

Currently there are 4 windows when test matches are played.

1. The 6 Nations – February/March

2. Northern hemisphere tours to Southern hemisphere countries – June/July

3. The Rugby Championship – August/September

4. Autumn tests – Southern hemisphere tours to the northern hemisphere

Undoubtedly Internationals are the key economic driver of the game with the RFU reckoning that each international match brings in an estimated £10 million on average into the coffers at Twickenham.

What’s being discussed?

The devastating loss of income and disruption to rugby’s governing organisations due to the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated these discussions and to bring the global season together it was proposed that 2 windows of International rugby are ring fenced as follows:-

1. The 6 Nations & The Rugby Championship – April/May

2. Autumn Internationals – October/November

There are a few different scenarios on the table, but the main objective would be to run the domestic seasons of the north and southern hemispheres concurrently in one calendar year and leave the International window free form any conflict with the domestic structures.

The 6 Nations

Whilst compromise is everything, I do believe the 6 Nations should remain in its current window with a subtle change to the start date of the Championship from early February to mid-February and ending on the last w/e of March.

I would then realign the Rugby Championship with the 6 Nations which would mean an early start to the International season for the southern hemisphere but if a compromise can’t be reached then a third window must be looked at:

1. The 6 Nations – February/March

2. The Rugby Championship – April/May

3. Autumn Internationals – October/November

How does this impact players?

Even with this scenario I do have reservations about the combined October and November window as this could be interpreted as an opportunity by unions to generate income by increasing the amount of Internationals from 6 to even 7 or 8 Internationals across the two months.

This is already an issue in the current November window where the internationals have increased from 3 to 4 and on occasions an extra match has been played in December. You will also recall that for players to be released from their club contracts to play in the matches outside the window there has been a power struggle for players between the governing bodies and the clubs.

By agreeing to a global season with ‘ring fenced’ international windows avoids this type of conflict but it puts the players bang in the middle of these discussions. Thankfully their voices are being heard through the International Rugby Players (Association) but will the players have to play more games?

The October window would see the Northern hemisphere nations heading to play matches in the south with return or rotation fixtures taking place in November. If the maximum number of matches was 8 and as a player you played in all 5, 6 Nations matches that could mean playing a total of 13 International matches per season for northern hemisphere players.

Add to that a further 20 plus games of domestic rugby to that schedule then player welfare has to be a priority. Driving up revenues in the game could lead to more matches being played (some players have played up to 18 international matches in a season) and unions are desperate to make up the shortfall and the easiest way of doing this is by putting on matches.

Play less International Matches.

Personally I think there are too many International matches and with International tours a thing of the past (with the exception of the Lions playing mid-week matches) I would go as far as capping the amount of international matches a player can play in one season to 12.

In other words ‘less is more’, but try and take that argument to Bill Sweeney the RFU’s Chief Executive who is facing a £50 million deficit over the next 18 months!

Domestic rugby success

One success story form the pandemic is the restructuring of the Super Rugby season and the clamour and support for provincial matches. The Super Rugby Aotearoa Championship in New Zealand has seen crowds flocking to the stadiums with massive television audiences following the action. Sponsors and stakeholders are reaping the benefits of that increased publicity and there is vibrancy surrounding the domestic game.

With the Super Rugby Australian competition starting this weekend albeit behind closed doors, the message coming out loud and clear is that rugby has a chance to rebrand and package itself based on local and provincial rivalry.

Here in the northern hemisphere efforts should be made to drive attendances to the Premiership and Pro 14 competitions but with the remaining Premiership, European and 6 Nations matches from last season still to be played, the 2020/2021 season will still be going well into July next year.

This in turn puts pressure on the Lions tour to South Africa which will have to be put back until September and October of 2021 but if a global season is accepted by all stakeholders it might not start until 2022 or 2023!

Add to that sponsorship rights, television contracts and the requirement for all unions to embrace the growth of the game by playing matches against those unions outside the top 10 in World Rugby means that the debate and voter earlier in the week can’t have been a simple process but the ramifications are huge.

Law changes.

It’s fair to say that some areas of the game have stagnated in recent seasons and the laws of the game have not been strictly applied. Currently New Zealand and Australia have adopted the following principles:-

  • Ball-carriers will be allowed only one dynamic movement after being tackled.

  • Crawling, or any secondary movement other than placing or passing, will be penalised.

  • Tacklers will be expected to roll away immediately in the direction of the side-line. This will be a referee’s “number one priority” at the tackle.

  • There will be “extra focus” on the offside line with defenders expected to be “clearly” onside to provide attacking teams more space

Interestingly enough all the above with the exception of the ‘roll to the side-line’ are stringently officiated in the seven a side game.

I sense a willingness for players and coaches to play open, attacking and entertaining rugby that will help build the foundations of the International game but here is a few more for consideration:

· Scrums to be set within 30 seconds of the referee’s whistle

· No kicking directly into touch from outside your own 22

· 40 seconds to take a penalty kick once indicated (currently 60 seconds in XVs and 30 seconds in 7s)

I eagerly await World Rugby’s announcement following the result of Monday’s vote but whatever happens, I hope our great game continues to excite and that the values of the sport are reflected in the way we play and support the game; integrity, respect, solidarity, passion and discipline.

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