Gerry Thornley: a 10-game 2021 Six Nations actually makes sense
There are 55 Test matches involving Tier 1 nations still to be completed in 2020
Bernard Laporte recently put forward plans for a 20-team club world cup. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
World Rugby’s attempts to devise contingency plans for what may or may not be possible before the end of the year is, as Philip Browne put it, akin to squeezing a quart into a pint pot.
However, the more one thinks about it, the more a 10-match, home and away 2021 Guinness Six Nations, to kick off in November 2020 - ludicrous though it may sound in many ways - actually has a degree of sense to it. Certainly this is truer than Bernard Laporte’s vision for a global club world club cup, which manages to be both a kite and a crock at the same time.
World Rugby are hosting video conference calls every week with a variety of the game’s stakeholders, and in a welcome advancement on previous directives such as the mooted Nations Championship, are this time including both the International Rugby Players association along with Premiership Rugby in England and Ligue National de Rugby in France, in the discussions.
Yet they make no secret of the truism that international rugby is the game’s main driver, by a distance. So it is that the game’s Unions and Federations are facing the doomsday possibility of losing not only the remaining four games of the 2020 Six Nations and the summer tours, but also the 2020 Rugby Championship and the November tours.
All told, there are 55 Test matches involving Tier 1 countries alone still due to be played in 2020.
Pending confirmation that the July tours will be postponed, the worst case scenario is squeezing another 17 matches along with the four postponed Six Nations game into a window between the end of September and end of October.
That is in the optimistic hope that the imperiled Rugby Championship somehow goes ahead between August 8th and September 26th, and ditto October’s third Bledisloe Cup game and New Zealand’s Test in Japan, along with the November tours as well.
That would be just about doable for the six European countries. Andy Farrell’s Ireland would thus have to play seven Tests between September and the end of November, two re-arranged Tests against the Wallabies in Brisbane and Sydney in September, two re-arranged Six Nations games against Italy at home and France in Paris, and then the November games at home to Australia, South Africa and Japan.
It would be more complicated for Italy, who would have to play eight Tests in a congested period, while England, Wales and Scotland have seven Tests still scheduled for this calendar year, and France have six.
But it would be next to nigh on impossible for the southern hemisphere countries, with New Zealand having to compress 14 Tests into a three or four month window, and the same for South Africa, with Australia and Argentina having to play 13 and 12 Tests.
At the very least there would need to be some re-scheduling of matches, notably the third Bledisloe Cup game between the Wallabies and All Blacks in Brisbane on October 17th. Even then, and even if there was an unlikely easing of global travel restrictions, the crisscrossing around the globe for the southern hemisphere playing squads especially, while playing 14 Tests in, say, 17 weeks, would be simply undoable.
Furthermore, rearranging postponed summer tours in October, along with those outstanding 2020 Six Nations games, not only is at odds with the issue of player welfare (not least given the hectic travel schedule) but is liable to incur the wrath of the English and French clubs given it will be taking players away for Test rugby outside the existing international windows.
By contrast, the Irish provinces would withstand whatever demands are placed on their Test front-liners if it meant they were back playing again in whatever shape or form. Not that they’d have any option anyway. He who pays the piper and all that.
However, if air travel between the hemispheres was still not possible come November as well as July, whereas it was permitted to some degree in Europe, running off a 10-round, home and away Six Nations looks more plausible for the European countries.
True, it would lead to a samey and veritable glut of all-northern hemisphere games, with Ireland thus playing a dozen Six Nations matches in a period of less than six months.
Yet it would also mean the same number of Tests (seven) for Ireland in the remainder of 2020, as it would for France (six) while England, Wales, Italy and Scotland would actually be playing a game less.
Of course, all of these considerations could yet be taken out of the hands of World Rugby and its various stakeholders by Governments and health authorities. For example, pending a Monday night address to the nation by French President Emmanuel Macron, the French Minister for Sport, Roxana Maracineanu, is also due to deliver an address on Wednesday.
This follows lengthy discussions she has held with key figures in all team and individual sports unions and federations in France, and it is conceivable that Maracineanu will declare that the 2019-20 seasons for professional sports in the country will be abandoned due to the coronavirus pandemic.
If that were to come to pass, it would not be as financially damaging for the French clubs as, say, their English counterparts. Canal+ are understood to have already paid out an estimated 85 per cent of their annual tv revenues from the 2019-20 season in any case.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that an estimated 40 per cent of the LNR’s €97 million per season deal with Canal+, which runs until 2024, is distributed to the 16 ProD2 clubs who are also fully fledged members of the LNR along with the Top 14 clubs. This is in stark contrast to Premiership Rugby, where the ring-fencing of the top 13 clubs has been underlined by the RFU slashing its funding for the Championship clubs.
In any event, in the midst of game’s current crisis, the last thing rugby needs in its crowded scheduling is another competition, and least of all Laporte’s 20-team brainchild.
Aside from the additional travel demands it would leave the vast majority in the various leagues (ie ten teams each from the Pro14 and Top 14, along with eight from the Premiership) idly twiddling their thumbs while it took place.