Rugby is one of many sports around the globe to be feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the spread of the virus, and the sporting hiatus that it caused, also affords rugby’s administrators to evaluate the game critically.
The chairmanship of the World Rugby Council will be decided via a vote this Sunday as Bill Beaumont is seeking a second term, while former Argentina captain and vice-chairman Agustin Pichot also has eyes on the top job.
Both men are promising change. But how should they go about it?
Our rugby experts on either side of the equator — Sam Bruce and Tom Hamilton — have some ideas on what improvements could be made to ensure the sport reaches its full potential.
How would you structure a truly global season?
SB: This is an incredibly difficult question to answer, but if the game is to truly reach its zenith at international level then it simply must settle on some sort of aligned season.
Given the sweltering conditions that can hit the southern summer, particularly Australia, a global season would have to run from mid/late February to the end of November. And to spare countries like France and Italy the worst of the heat, the July Test window, which was originally set to be contested for the first time this year, would be a permanent fixture.
I’d also give those touring Test players a two-week break on their return. In terms of the northern season, I’d start with the Six Nations and then let the European rugby season run through to the start of the November Test window, when they face the southern hemisphere’s best at home.
I would move the Rugby Championship to the start of the year, too. Why not start the year with a bang, rather than fumbling through two or three weeks of rusty Super Rugby? That ensures fairness, in terms of preparation for both the Six Nations and Rugby Championship and brings together a level playing field for a yearly Nations Championship.
Super Rugby and European provincial tournaments could run concurrently from April to October — which would mean they would halt during July.
New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett runs the ball for New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup semifinal with England in Yokohama, October 26, 2019 Ashley Western/MB Media/Getty Images
TH: Great question, and if the world’s finest rugby brains can’t crack it, then I doubt I’ll fare much better but here it goes.
You need synergy between the north and south, with international rugby put first. Test rugby is the lifeblood of the game, it generates the most money, it garners the most interest and is rugby at its finest. So put that first. The ideal scenario would be to move the July Tests to September — so you have back-to-back Test windows in September and October as part of a Nations Championship. The north tours the south in September, and vice versa in October.
Keep the Six Nations where they are but play over consecutive weekends and do the same with the Rugby Championship in August. Then, play domestic league rugby — in the north and southern hemispheres — from January through to July. The Heineken Cup will be shrunk — make it elite rather than a catch-all — and play that through August. Everyone gets November off, and we go again in January.
The Nations Championship amounted to nothing in 2018, but the money it could generate could now be more valuable than ever. Do you support it?
SB: This simply must be sorted, again, for the game to fulfill its potential and growth across the globe.
We know it was knifed last time by the Six Nations, who were comfortable with their status quo and sought their own financial safety with a stake from private equity group CVC. I understand their desire to maintain tradition and they can absolutely do that; no-one is asking them to abolish “The Championship.” And to the likes of Scotland, if you’re worried about relegation, what does that say about your aspirations to really mix it with game’s elite; the dream to one day win a World Cup?
The other issue here is the reported amount of money a Nations Championship was going to inject into the game right around the world. And we now know that CVC have spoken with both New Zealand Rugby and the South African Rugby Union, while a Rugby Australia spokesperson gave a curious response to ESPN that they had not really “spoken to us directly.”
In terms of structure, it’s a no-brainer that Japan and Fiji join the RC to complete the “Tier 1 Nations Championship” while a blend of the Pacific Nations Cup/Americas and the European Nations Championship would fit into a “Tier 2 Championship.” Set a date, and work it from the rankings from there.
England captain Owen Farrell talks to referee Nigel Owens during the Rugby World Cup semifinal against New Zealand in Yokohama, Japan, October 26, 2019 Ashley Western/MB Media/Getty Images
TH: At its essence, the concept was sound. It was the execution which was shambolic. This needs everyone on board. We need a meritocratic system, encouraging tier one and tier two synergy and preventing rugby from being a closed shop. If the Six Nations is to keep this ring-fenced existence then just be honest and say they want the game to be between the same countries and leave the rest to fend for themselves.
The concept of a Nations Championship is central to both Bill Beaumont and Agustin Pichot’s manifestos — both want it. Fundamentally, it would see the Six Nations and Rugby Championship both play out like normal, but with a playoff between the winner and relegation/promotion established to the next tier.
It works, even though it needs a better name. But if you can coordinate broadcast rights and seek external investment — Pichot is keen to explore links with venture capitalists CVC — then it could progress. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but now is a time to park private interest and embrace change.
What kind of financial change do you see for the game as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and how will it impact clubs and players moving forward?
SB: The coronavirus crisis is going to hit revenue streams and the general amount of money that exists in particular sports for an extended period of time. Rugby’s status as a global game, which allows it to consider tournaments like a Nations Championship, puts it at extra risk; so too the presence of international provincial tournaments like Super Rugby, the PRO14 and others.
But where it could really have a severe impact is on the size of professional contracts both clubs and national unions can offer. In the past fortnight, we’ve seen both NZ Rugby and Rugby Australia settle on sweeping cuts with their respective players’ unions while cuts to salaries in the English Premiership and other competitions have also been enacted. Given few clubs or unions seemed to have a “rainy day” fund in place, certainly something that could have been used in the situation we find ourselves in, there needs to be some sort of financial correction across the game.
That could come with reductions of those $1 million contracts into $800k figures for the game’s genuine superstars; but there could also be factors like decreased broadcast revenue, third-party deals, reduced sabbatical opportunities and the option of private equity. No-one denies the players deserve to be well paid for putting their bodies on the line, but it can’t exist with a situation where clubs and unions are continually under financial pressure. The size and pay packets of administrators, too, should also fall in line with a more manageable finance plan.
TH: Rugby is facing its own financial Armageddon.
The Rugby Football Union (RFU) is projecting a £50m revenue loss this year, and that’s with the autumn Tests taking place. Things are pretty grim in the southern hemisphere with unions hemorrhaging money and it’s all because the game got to a place where it was unsustainable and built on sand. The likely scenario is wages will decrease and, in an ideal world, that’d go hand-in-hand with players being asked to play fewer matches. If seasons cannot be completed, broadcast deals will need to be looked at and this offers an opportunity to renegotiate this.
Expect to see more third-party investment, clubs unfortunately going to the wall and a number of players left looking for clubs.
What changes would you make to European club rugby/Super Rugby and is a Club World Cup necessary?
SB: Super Rugby has been on the slide for years and the current halt to the competition gives SANZAAR and its member unions a real opportunity to examine the tournament critically.
European and Japanese competitions are luring players offshore earlier in their careers, while fans have slowly drifted away, both in the grandstand and at home on their lounges. Solving provincial rugby in the southern hemisphere has to be done through more local solutions, and that could lead Australia and New Zealand into a trans-Tasman comp, allowing South Africa to commit completely to the PRO14 or perhaps another competition in Europe.
The other option would be to have each of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand host their own domestic leagues, with some sort of a Champions and Challenge Cup scenario following the completion of those national championships. I’d love to see Australia and New Zealand get together and create a trans-Tasman tournament, with the possible addition of Pacific Island and/or Japanese teams. New Zealand have never really been keen on the idea, but the presence of coronavirus and the relative success they and Australia have had in fighting the pandemic means it might be the best situation available moving forward. I understand that would have ramifications of where South Africa fits in provincially and the in the Rugby Championship, however.
TH: Ideally, we would have a British and Irish league. Make it a conference system, leading into a split, cross-country league on meritocratic grounds with one overall champion. It’d be attractive to broadcasters and create a brilliant rivalry. You’d then have a second division, with promotion and relegation at its heart, with this tier receiving generous investment, rather than being cast aside. With Ireland, Wales and Scotland’s teams in this new-look league, Italy’s teams would fold in with the French Top 14. The South Africa experiment in aligning with the northern hemisphere would end, and SANZAAR would strengthen as a result. The Heineken Cup would be shrunk, and the Challenge Cup abolished.
What one law change would you make and why?
SB: I have long been on about the refereeing of the breakdown, particularly side entry, so it was pleasing to hear World Rugby say that officials will place a renewed focus on that area of the game. Away from the breakdown, the one law change would be a simple instigation of a scrum clock, which was brought into Australia’s National Rugby League a few years ago.
Rugby scrums are, clearly, far more technical than those in the 13-man game, and safety must be paramount; but we waste so much time with scrum resets and players feigning injury for a breather. Once the mark is set for a scrum, a 45-second clock could be started; any team that does not have its eight-man unit assembled by that point would then concede a free-kick. Also, after one failed scrum, the regular game clock would stop until either the ball was successfully cleared by the scrum-half/No. 8, or the referee had awarded a penalty.
The Crusaders have won three straight Super Rugby titles, yet the competition is failing to resonate with fans and broadcasters Phil Walter/Getty Images
TH: The whole law book needs to be ripped up and simplified. The Six Nations was a shambolic display of consistency in the application of laws to the breakdown. And this is because it is far too complicated with players subject to any number of offences at the breakdown. Simplify the law book, it’ll make the sport far more accessible and you’ll get new fans.
Who is better placed to take the game forward: Bill Beaumont or Agustin Pichot?
SB: Pichot has seemingly been compared to everyone from Napoleon to Che Guevara, but I do like his vision for the game. Clearly, he has found the last few years, when he has served as vice-chairman of the World Rugby Council, frustrating, particularly when it comes to the business of enacting change for what he sees is the good of the game.
It’s time some fresh ideas were injected into rugby, like the Nations Championship, for the good of its growth around the world. It’s no secret the power within rugby continues to exist in the northern hemisphere, that’s despite eight of the nine World Cups being won either by New Zealand, South Africa or Australia while Pichot’s revelation that only Wales had responded to his email about his candidacy for the top job paints a grim picture of self-interest. It appears the vote is going to be incredibly close regardless, with the decision likely to go down to a handful of smaller unions who have just the one vote. But it’s time for new leadership. It’s time for Pichot.
Bill Beaumount [L] and Agustin Pichot are contesting the World Rugby chairman vote TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP via Getty Images
TH: The sport is seemingly split on this, with the World Rugby chairman election likely to come down to a vote either side. Quite why rugby is having this election in the middle of a pandemic is questionable, but you have the battle of David and Goliath. Beaumont is evolution over revolution; Pichot has a dream of each nation carrying a single vote in World Rugby voting rather than the weighted model it adopts at present which is firmly in favour of the ‘tier one’ countries.
We want to see a competitive, financially secure global game; that’s the primary objective for any administrator. Both Pichot and Beaumont’s manifestos are similar but it’s now about action over words. At its core, both want to empower players, review how the sport is governed and bring in a new annual competition.
Beaumont says more can be achieved in the second term, than the first, but Beaumont’s administration has not achieved what it set out to do: establish a firm new global calendar (work in progress) and tier two nations remain searching for scraps from the top table. Giving the top gig to Pichot is a risk: one high profile figure in the game cautioned to ESPN that in a time of chaos, the worst thing you can do is encourage further chaos.
But now is the time for Pichot to give it a shot and see if he can get the sport on one page. The age argument of Pichot being younger than Beaumont is redundant, but we need someone to take this game beyond the status quo and rid it of protectionism. Pichot seems best-placed to get to the influential club owners on side and has a revenue-sharing model at the heart of his vision so give him a chance.
Will we see international rugby this year, and a Lions tour in 2021?
SB: I can see Australia and New Zealand playing a Bledisloe Cup series this year, but only because those two nations have, so far, navigated the coronavirus crisis as well as anyone. And the two Unions are reportedly already in dialogue about some options. The far greater spread of the virus in the U.K. and Europe will make a resumption of the Six Nations, or a whole new tournament altogether, incredibly hard, particularly when you consider the fact the cold weather will be returning when the Test rugby was due to be played in November.
I think the prospect of a British & Irish Lions Tour in 2021 is slightly more realistic, though the coronavirus pandemic could yet cause greater and longer-term problems for South Africa. No player, coach, administrator or fan should be put at risk, no matter how long this terrible crisis continues.
Australia exited the World Cup after a hiding from England and the problems continue for Australian rugby at home Dan Mullan/Getty Images
TH: I think there’s a good chance we will have a Lions tour next year, but right now, there is so much uncertainty in Europe that it is hard to see rugby resuming any time soon. The Principality Stadium has been turned into NHS Dragon Heart, a field hospital, while Twickenham is now a drive-through testing centre for the virus. While the various governing bodies are building their financial forecasts around he November Tests taking place, it is too soon to speculate on whether we’ll see Test rugby this year and it should only return once everyone’s safety can be guaranteed.