Rugby unions are under pressure to generate creative solutions to financial and player management problems like never before, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Three weeks have passed since the Sharks hosted the Stormers at Kings Park. While no rugby has been played in South Africa since that fixture, much has transpired behind closed doors.
The Covid-19 pandemic will leave a lasting mark on the local and international game. The respective unions have projected financial losses that are in the hundreds of millions. While it’s hoped that play will resume in some shape or form by June, I’ve spoken to less optimistic coaches who are bracing themselves for a September return.
The past three weeks have been eventful. Who knows what the next three will bring, and whether we will have any clarity regarding a return date when World Rugby makes an announcement at the end of April.
I don’t blame the unions for embracing a positive mindset, though. They’ve got to weigh up all the scenarios in what may be a largely truncated 2020 season. They’ve got to accept that new formats and possibly even make-shift tournaments and series will be the order of the day when they get the confirmation that it’s safe to return to play – even behind closed doors.
Australia and New Zealand look set to stage domestic tournaments when the ban on mass gatherings is eventually lifted. In New Zealand, there is talk of a North Island vs South Island series, a concept that should attract a lot of interest and give top players an opportunity to regain their match fitness.
We may have to wait a while for Test rugby to resume, as the sides based in Europe may be subject to different sanctions to those based in South Africa and Australasia. And yet the respective unions would do well to use this period to bring their players up to speed.
South Africa would do well to stage its own domestic tournament during the aforementioned waiting period. It’s not yet known whether these derbies in the Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will count toward the 2020 Vodacom Super Rugby standings. What’s most important, however, is that the players return to action and that some revenue is generated through the broadcasting of these games.
I like the idea of a North Island versus South Island fixture in New Zealand. It’s being billed as an All Blacks trial, and I reckon Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber would benefit from a similar game being staged here in South Africa over the next few months.
2020 has been identified as an important season for the Boks with regard to developing their wider squad. Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus have spoken about using the Tests against Scotland and Georgia – and perhaps the SA A matches against Georgia – to explore a host of new options with the short and long-term in mind.
The Boks won’t have that opportunity to experiment if the July Tests don’t proceed as planned. Perhaps it would serve the coaches’ purposes to stage a trial match or two before the Rugby Championship commences.
Nobody knows for certain when or even if the 2020 season will resume. That said, the unions would do well to prepare their charges for a return to action.
Earlier this week, SA Rugby’s head of athletic performance Aled Walters told me that the players have to take responsibility with regard to their fitness while in isolation. The physical and mental discipline of these players will be tested like never before.
It will be interesting to see where the players are in terms of their performance after the lockdown. The manner in which they are introduced to competitive rugby – most likely in a domestic tournament played behind closed doors – could also be important.
A lot of the coaches and players I’ve spoken to recently are looking at this challenge as an opportunity. It’s fair to say that the teams that maintain their discipline during the lockdown period stand the best chance of performing once it is over. The Test players who remain focused during lockdown will have an edge over others when the international season resumes at a later stage.
Again, it’s hard to say where we will be in three weeks or even in three months. It’s fair to say, however, that the ability to adapt and survive in the most challenging of situations has never been more valuable.
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