Champions and Challenge Cup games have been postponed, while there are growing concerns for Six Nations and the Lions
Growing concerns over 2020-21 rugby season – European rugby competitions suspended
Rugby has been notoriously poor at scheduling – we’re still waiting for that holy grail of a ‘global season’ more than 25 years after the game went professional. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated problems, with ongoing travel restrictions and spectators unable to attend matches.
The current spike in Covid-19 cases has led to more logistical issues in the game, with major tournaments in doubt. So what next?
Safety is paramount. Professional rugby has worked extremely hard to implement measures to reduce the risk of transmission and has strict testing protocols in place. As long as those systems remain robust, you would hope rugby can continue.
The game’s administrators are constantly having to react and adapt to the changing situation, so below we’ve looked at three big talking points and proposed what we think would be the best solutions…
European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup
As it stands
This season’s European competitions have already been amended due to Covid-19. The pool stages have been condensed, with only four games rather than the usual six. The competition format is also different, with 24 teams in the Champions Cup and 14 in the Challenge Cup, and two large pools instead of the traditional four-team ones.
All matches were played on the first pool weekend but four Champions Cup and two Challenge Cup ties were cancelled in round two due to positive Covid cases. For cancelled matches, the team without Covid cases has been awarded a 28-0 bonus-point win, so five match points.
The next two pool rounds were due to take place on 15-17 and 22-24 January, but the competitions have now been suspended.
The French government has concerns about sports clubs playing cross-border competitions due to the spike of Covid infections in the UK and has told Top 14 clubs to postpone all European matches at home and on British soil until at least February.
EPCR, organisers of the competitions, had already moved to allay concerns amongst French clubs around Covid protocols, moving tests to three days before matches rather than earlier in the week. However, the Champions and Challenge Cups have now been suspended due to the directive from the French authorities.
An EPCR statement said: “Following a directive from the French authorities that the participation of Top 14 clubs in the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup at the current time constitutes too great a public health risk, EPCR has no choice but to announce today (Monday 11 January) that the 2020-21 tournaments are temporarily suspended.
“While respecting all further directives by governments and local authorities, and prioritising the health and welfare of players and club staff, EPCR, in conjunction with its shareholder leagues and unions, remains committed to trying to find a solution which will enable it to resume and complete the tournaments as soon as practicable.”
Rugby World view
If there is to be any chance of completing European competitions this season, then weekends will need to be freed up later in the year and this would allow that. So it makes sense to bring Gallagher Premiership, Guinness Pro14 and Top 14 fixtures forward to take their place.
Plus, it keeps live rugby on the schedule and clubs would have their international players available for more league matches.
Yes, there are logistical challenges in moving fixtures at such short notice but not in the same way that there would be if fans were allowed to attend matches. Rugby needs to learn to adapt quicker in the ever-changing world we currently live in.
Premiership clubs are expected to continue discussions overnight, with a decision due tomorrow on whether league fixtures will be played this coming weekend.
The Top 14 has moved quickly and already announced that postponed league matches have been rescheduled for this weekend.
The men’s championship is due to kick off on 6 February with the final round of five on 20 March – 2021 Six Nations fixtures – but so far no dates have been announced for the Women’s Six Nations.
The Women’s Six Nations is expected to be pushed back until April-May. With the majority of players in that tournament amateur, there are issues around bubbles and testing, so the hope is that by moving it back a couple of months there will be fewer restrictions in place and the tournament can go ahead as planned.
There have been suggestions that it would be better to move the men’s tournament back, too, in the hope that fans would be allowed at matches.
The news from France around cross-border tournaments has led to fresh speculation over whether the Six Nations can take place in February-March, although FFR president Bernard Laporte told RMC Sport that it will go ahead with an adapted health protocol.
Rugby World view
Moving the women’s championship back makes sense given that most teams wouldn’t be able to operate a secure bio-bubble, although there is obviously no guarantee that the Covid situation will have improved by April. Let’s hope that it has as teams build towards the World Cup or World Cup qualifiers.
If the men’s tournament stays where it is, this is also an opportunity to see how the Women’s Six Nations works in a stand-alone window – something that has been discussed for many years.
As for the men’s Six Nations, providing the requisite protocols are in place with regards testing, contact tracing and bubbles to ensure the safety of the teams (playing and non-playing staff), then it should go ahead as planned.
Delaying it would create further problems with regards domestic schedules – there has already been one major row between the FFR and Top 14 clubs this season – and it is unlikely that the crowds needed to boost finances would be permitted in a couple of months’ time.
Yes, there were problems in the Autumn Nations Cup with Fiji’s three pool games cancelled because of Covid cases, but that involved a group of players coming together from all over the world. In the Six Nations, players are generally already in the country they represent and being tested regularly, so this should minimise the risk of transmission.
It is also far easier for a national team to maintain a tight bubble with the squad in camp compared to club teams, where players return home after training and games.
If there are concerns around travel, a solution would be to keep the same dates but hold the tournament in one country.
British & Irish Lions Tour
The much-awaited 2021 Lions tour is due to start with a Test against Japan at BT Murrayfield at the end of June before Warren Gatland’s squad play nine matches, including three Tests, in South Africa in July and August.
As well as the new UK strain of Covid, there is a South African variant, which has seen a spike in cases there too. With vaccination rollouts also taking time, this has led to serious concerns over whether the tour can go ahead as planned and, in particular, whether the huge numbers of Lions supporters expected to follow the trip would be able to travel.
There have been regular meetings between the Lions and SA Rugby, with several contingency plans believed to have been discussed, including playing the tour behind closed doors, staging it in the UK and Ireland, and moving it to 2022.
The Lions are due to make a decision in early February to provide clarity for all involved.
Rugby World view
We all hope that the Lions tour can take place in South Africa this year as planned and with fans, but it must be safe to do so. At present, it is hard to imagine tens of thousands of Lions fans being able to travel to the other side of the world and then pack into stadiums with tens of thousands of South African fans. Unfortunately, full stadiums still look a long way off.
If it is not possible to play in front of crowds in South Africa but it can be done in the UK, this would seem like a good one-off option. You lose the touring element but it allows spectators to watch the Lions play and fans are integral to any Lions series.
Plus, with the Lions and SA Rugby agreeing to a joint venture when it comes to commercial deals, there would still be the generation of much-needed revenue for both entities.
However, a Lions tour without fans is not a Lions tour, so if crowds are not permitted in either South Africa or the UK, we would propose moving the tour to 2025, when the Lions are due to visit Australia, and shifting all subsequent tours back four years (ie Australia 2029, New Zealand 2033).
There has been a lot of talk of shifting the tour to 2022 but that would cause a lot of knock-on effects and also raises player welfare concerns.
All the home unions have summer tours scheduled for July 2022 and those Test series are a crucial part of their preparation for the World Cup 15 months later. If a team’s best players are away with the Lions, that preparation will suffer and it’s hard to see national coaches signing off on that.
Plus, if the Lions tour took place in 2022 the players involved would return to go straight into a World Cup season. Yes, they would get a short off-season – probably around five weeks – but then it would be club action, November Tests, club action, Six Nations, club action, World Cup training camps, World Cup warm-ups, the World Cup itself, and then back to another season. That’s a long and intense period of top-level rugby, so you hope players are involved in these discussions too.
Moving the series to 2025 means we would be denied a Lions tour for eight years, but it may be the best long-term solution.
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