The coronavirus crisis is forcing players and stakeholders to make changes that will transform the game as we know it, writes JON CARDINELLI.
How much can a sport change in the space of four weeks?
The Vodacom Super Rugby tournament was officially suspended on 15 March. For a brief period, teams like the Sharks and Stormers continued to train in small pods while observing social distancing protocols.
Journalists like myself continued to visit training grounds and ask coaches about how they planned to cope with an unprecedented challenge. At that stage, there was talk in Australia of a domestic iteration of the competition commencing as early as 3 April.
Fast forward to the present. Every league has shut down due to the rising threat of Covid-19. Countries like South Africa are in lockdown, and players and coaches have been forced to continue with their training and planning in isolation.
There’s been speculation about when the game will eventually resume. The 3 April deadline has come and gone and a few optimistic predictions of a mid-April resumption have been shattered by the news that South Africa – and other countries – have extended the lockdown period.
Right now, SA Rugby is hoping for a restart in June. That seems unlikely, though, given that the number of infections in this country may only peak in September. It remains to be seen what the government will do beyond the 35-day lockdown period and how this will impact on sports like rugby.
Let me be clear: I’m not mocking the respective unions for making optimistic predictions or considering radical changes to local and international competitions in an attempt to offset significant losses.
These are extraordinary times. Most players, coaches and administrators have already agreed to take some form of pay cut following a month on the sidelines. Who knows where the industry might be after two or three months in limbo.
You can’t blame the authorities for having a plan for every possible scenario, whether it’s the best case of rugby resuming behind closed doors in June or the worst case of a return to action in November. A top coach told me recently that the latter is more realistic with regard to Test rugby.
Either way, the impact on the game will be profound. We might resume via a local tournament in June, but international travel restrictions may limit the number of Tests for a while longer.
The game has been on pause for four weeks, and already the projections regarding financial losses are in the hundreds of millions. The situation will affect individual unions and individual players in different ways, but all will be hoping for a restart sooner rather than later.
There’s bound to be a number of player welfare issues when rugby eventually resumes. As Springbok conditioning guru Aled Walters told me recently, there will be a period of adjustment when players eventually return to team training and those individuals who have not maintained a high standard in isolation may well be susceptible to injuries.
It may seem crazy to talk about individual workloads at a time when players can’t even participate in full contact sessions with their teammates. It will be interesting to see what happens when local and international teams try to play catch-up in the latter stages of 2020, though.
Already there is talk of playing two games a week in some club tournaments in an attempt to finish the 2019-20 season and start the 2020-21 competition on schedule. Many of the July Tests, like the remaining Six Nations games, could be postponed until October. We may have a scenario where top southern-hemisphere players compete across the Rugby Championship, the postponed July Test matches and in the scheduled end-of-year tours in a period of three or four months.
As many have pointed out, this crisis will have a long-term impact on the sport, the magnitude of which will depend on the time spent in limbo.
Again, even a best-case scenario with a June restart will force clubs and Test sides to play catch-up, particular up north. That will mean a lot of rugby for British & Irish players – as well as South Africans representing European clubs – ahead of the much-anticipated Lions series in mid-2021.
How would a later restart – in August or even November – further impact on the club schedules? As some have pointed out, they may have to take extreme measures by playing multiple games a week and extending the season to ensure it’s completed.
Many rugby people have called for the powers that be to make the most of the crisis and align the hemispheres in a global season. It remains to be seen if the English and French clubs will take the concept seriously, though, and how much the existing broadcast deals will shape the discussion.
We don’t know a lot for certain at this point. What we do know is that something has to change if the game is going to generate more interest and revenue. There’s no going back to the status quo.
Already the game has changed in the space of four weeks. There will be further changes as the respective nations attempt to battle and contain Covid-19 – and its impact on various aspects of society – over the next few months.
The game will be adversely affected. One would hope that something positive comes from the ordeal, and that long overdue structural changes are finally implemented.