The first round of midweek Premiership matches was a qualified success. There were some terrible matches, some decent matches and one exceptional clash, between Bristol and Exeter, and while there are a number of reasons why some of what we saw will not live long in the memory, I have seen enough to form the opinion that midweek matches should become a permanent fixture.
That is not to say for one minute that players should be regularly playing three fixtures in a just over a week – one of the main reasons some matches have been low on quality is that the players are knackered – but a remodelling of the schedule to allow for a sustained block of midweek fixtures is an option that needs to be explored.
First, let’s look it at from a TV perspective. The viewing figures for the midweek fixtures – round 16 of the Premiership – were higher than at the same stage last season. Back then, they clashed with the Six Nations but that only serves to highlight the point – why not introduce a block of midweek fixtures during the international windows?
It is a simple reality that when England are playing, domestic rugby cannot compete in terms of demand and the number of eyeballs, but if clubs were to arrange their matches in the week between two international matches, surely there would be some migration from casual fans. Yes, there are the continuing discussions about an aligned global calendar, which could eliminate the domestic and international crossover, but an outcome that suits all parties is looking increasingly unlikely.
Kick-off times and days are always a complex argument. You will always have people for whom they are inconvenient and I’ve had some say that midweek at 6pm is no good because it’s when they put their kids to bed, but you cannot please everybody. It is also a time when a lot of people are looking to tune out from work, shut the laptop and relax, and obviously fewer people are caught up in a commute at the moment.
It would also mean that rugby is not competing with football – Champions League and the odd round of Premier League midweek fixtures notwithstanding – and all the other weekend activities that have prevented people from watching rugby in the past.
When it comes to the stage when supporters are allowed back into stadiums, it could lead to a different demographic of fans attending matches, but is that necessarily a bad thing? If some clubs are overly reliant on 60- to 70-year-old men, who may well be thinking twice about attending sporting events, then perhaps a switch to targeting families for early evening kick-offs would be more beneficial. Maybe club owners would turn around and fire off a list of reasons why it may not work – alcohol sales may be down, for example – but I do feel it is something that should be explored.
Rugby can be traditionally opposed to change but as administrators keep telling us, Covid-19 has brought about a blank canvas and provided the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and come up with new ideas.
This past week marked 25 years since the game went professional and the World Rugby chief executive, Brett Gosper, admitted the sport has not moved or progressed as quickly as it should have done. That’s because there has always been a resistance to change.
On the pitch, there have been a number of teams who have shown similar conservatism and that has been a bit disappointing. The one match where we saw one team set out their attacking stall and the other try and match it, rather than just try and stop it, produced by far and away the best match since the restart with Exeter’s narrow win over Bristol.
That Wayne Barnes, the best referee in the world, was on the whistle was no coincidence either. I don’t mean to be overly critical because some players are having to back up repeatedly at the moment while other clubs are making wholesale changes, which makes continuity so difficult. But I’d have liked to have seen a bit more ambition across the board. The weather has not been great but that’s nothing new in this country. It has been a bit negative but again, some of it will be down to the fact that there is limited training time, so we have to keep the playbook pretty simple.
Taking a glass half-full approach, I do think the penny is beginning to drop when it comes to the new breakdown interpretations, judging by how the penalty counts reduced from round one to two. And I wholeheartedly agree with the intentions behind them. We want to celebrate excellent individual performances from specialist jackallers such as Jack Willis and Ben Curry and it’s great to see those guys rewarded, but at the same time we don’t want to see the ball constantly being slowed down.
If we can get quicker ball, greater ball-in-play time, turnovers and unstructured play – those are the ingredients of a good game. We’re talking about competition at the breakdown but legal competition. We get it at the scrum, the lineout and we’re actually getting good legal competition at the breakdown for the first time in years. It’s actually quite hard to cheat at the breakdown now and that has to bode well for the future.