Are rugby union and its calendar stretched to breaking point? | Paul Rees

Paul Rees
The British & Irish Lions played 10 matches in Australia in 2013 but the number of games they play on a tour will be reduced to eight from 2021. Photograph: Marianna Massey/Getty Images

Now that the tour schedule after 2019 has been agreed, which is what the talks over a global calendar amounted to, the devil will be in the detail. New Zealand described the deal as enshrining the primacy of international rugby but the talks gave clubs an opportunity they did not pass up.

As a consequence, there is pressure on the Six Nations to abandon its two fallow weekends and play the tournament over five successive weeks and on the Lions to shrink their tour to seven matches. England, the only one of the home unions who have a vibrant club scene, have proposed a compromise, but there will come a point when fence-sitting will not be an option because it will have collapsed.

Bernard Laporte, the president of the French Rugby Federation, has taken on the Top 14 clubs in his three months in office, even threatening to close down Ligue Nationale de Rugby, the organisation that controls the professional club game. He has said he wants the leading 45 players in the country to be contracted to the union and on France duty for six months of the year and, while the clubs have mocked the plan, they have offered concessions.

Under the agreement between LNR and the FFR, 30 players have extended release periods, covering entire international campaigns and a guaranteed eight-week break in the close season. The clubs are prepared to raise that number to 45 and extend the rest period to 10 weeks but Laporte is not in compromising mood, determined to ensure that France becomes an international force again and that some of the money lavished on the professional club game makes its way from the pockets of foreign players to the amateur level.

In England Premiership Rugby has said it intends to extend the club season by a month after the change in the calendar will result in summer tours taking place in July rather than June. World Rugby envisaged the European season starting a month later, at the beginning of October, which is the intention of the Pro12, but the English season will run for 10 months with – for some players – a three-Test tour after it.

A complaint of English club owners is they have to do without their England players for virtually half the league season

Premiership Rugby said extending the season did not automatically mean that players would play more matches but the Gloucester and England wing Charlie Sharples warned: “From a player welfare point of view, especially international players, having an 11-month season is a real red flag. As the Rugby Players’ Association representative for Gloucester, my concern is not having enough rest periods because the mental grind of an 11-month season will take its toll. I don’t think other players will be receptive because the season is pretty long and hard as it is, and I don’t think it should be made tougher to earn a few more pounds. I don’t see any positives for the players.”

The Celtic unions want Twickenham to take more of a lead and echo New Zealand’s paean to the primacy of international rugby; if not as confrontational as Laporte’s FFR, then assuming a position that considers the wider game. Given what is happening in the southern hemisphere, where Australia are considering reducing the number of Super Rugby franchises there from five to four and South Africa are talking about going down from six to four, there is a danger of a vacuum being created which, if unions are not alert enough, will be filled by clubs.

One of the complaints of the English club owners is that they have to do without their England players for virtually half the league season. By extending the season by a month and playing more Premiership fixtures after the end of the Six Nations, they will be picking from strength more often and it would also provide more of an opportunity for a match-up between the best in the south and the north, with the major club tournaments in the two hemispheres finishing at the same time.

The Celtic unions want Twickenham to take more of a lead and echo New Zealand’s paean to the primacy of international rugby. Photograph: Steve Bardens/The RFU via Getty Images

The professional era has been marked by expansion: the Five Nations became Six, Argentina joined the old Tri-Nations, Super Rugby has more than doubled in size to 18 teams and is spread across five countries, the Pro12 swelled to include Italian teams and the top three leagues in Europe compete in two European tournaments.

Is the game stretched to breaking point? The Welsh Rugby Union has moved to take over Newport Gwent Dragons rather than see the region go bust; Thomas Savare, the Stade Français owner whose proposed merger with Racing 92 collapsed this month after player and public protest, has put the club up for sale, saying that French rugby is “living beyond its means” and “is on an intravenous drip”. Super Rugby is looking to go back to 15 teams, although that means Australia losing one, either in Perth or Melbourne, two rugby union outposts, and South Africa cutting two: the government is opposed to one of them being the weakest of the sextet, Southern Kings, because it is the region where its transformation policy is working best.

Some in South Africa are looking covetously at the European market. “I don’t agree with the notion that we should be helping to build rugby in Argentina and Japan through a structure which we largely fund,” said the former South Africa centre, Brendan Venter, who coached London Irish and Saracens and was on Italy’s management team during the Six Nations. “While the short-term solution for South Africa is to remain part of Super Rugby because there is a broadcast deal in place until 2020, I would urge SA Rugby to explore the option of joining a northern hemisphere competition at some point.”

Clubs in England and France have invested heavily in the professional game and it is right that they are part of the discussions on the way forward but all the other major unions rely on Test match income to sustain their clubs, regions, provinces and franchises. The game has reached a point when firm leadership is required.

• This is an extract taken from the Breakdown, the Guardian’s weekly rugby union email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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