It’s official. The Premier League is on its way back, the four big broadcasters have carved up a sizable chunk of the remaining 92 fixtures and in under two weeks’ time, football will be back in Britain.
The Championship will return a fortnight later, and all going well, the remaining nine rounds of the Premier League will be wrapped up by late July, allowing ample time to complete the European season and prepare for an August/September kick-off for the 2020/21 campaign.
At the same time, rugby union will only have just resumed.
Next week the first Premiership club will return to training, with most waiting until the following week before recalling their furloughed players. Bath confirmed yesterday that their squad will go back to Farleigh House on 15 June, just two days before the opening Premier League game takes place. With players requiring two months of training to get back to the levels demanded in the top flight, the first of the nine remaining rounds of Premiership fixtures is now due to kick off in August.
This leaves the sport a limited window to complete a lot of rugby. Fifty-four games of Premiership action will be followed by the semi-finals and final, with the European knockout stages set to follow with a conclusion pencilled in for 17 October. By that time, international rugby will be back on our screens, leaving an obvious clash between the Champions Cup final and what is set to be the rearranged Six Nations fixtures that were postponed last March.
Those October internationals lead straight into the November test schedule, although the make-up of those matches remains at the behest of coronavirus and government protocol on cross-border travel.
Cumulatively, it is the best part of 20 weeks’ worth of rugby, all being squeezed into a window of three-and-a-half months in order to give players enough time to recover before next season starts in the new year. With no one currently willing to sacrifice their schedule, there is going to be a fixture pile-up.
“It’s how you deal with a clash,” RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney said on Thursday. “You need that spirit of harmony, you need that recognition that 2020 is an exceptional year and we have to sit around a table and find compromises that work for both sides.
“We want to avoid a pure conflict situation with that and recognise the international game has got requirements and the club game also, but let’s find a way through it.”
There is a silver lining, at least for now, in that the relationship between the conflicting parties is on stable ground, allowing them to sit around the same table – virtually of course – to find something close to the perfect solution. Sweeney appears to be the crucial pivot here, given he not only leads governing body but is also on the six-man panel currently discussing plans for a desperately-needed global calendar, with three executives from the northern hemisphere meeting “four or five times a week” with three southern hemisphere counterparts in discussions that could ratify the future of rugby union before the end of the year.
Sweeney can then take those plans to the clubs to begin the process of determining how everything fits together, though there is one major issue at domestic level that still needs resolving.
Saracens know they are destined for the Championship, but with the Premiership holding out on completing their 2019/20 campaign, their exile to the second tier is currently on hold. The problem with that is the Championship isn’t on hold; their season was ended by the RFU in April, Newcastle are ready and waiting to replace Saracens in the top flight and the rest of the league wants to get their 2020/21 campaign underway from September.
With Saracens likely to still be playing this season in October, there isn’t an obvious answer that allows the north London club to play in two separate domestic campaigns while also attempting to defend their European crown.
“That is one of the topics we have got to resolve,” Sweeney adds. “The Championship could theoretically start again in September so if you have got a European Cup final in October and they were to be involved in that, we need to find a solution. That is something we are in discussions with Premiership Rugby about.
“I don’t have an absolute fixed date for you because of the nature of this crisis and what it has done for fixtures this season. That is something we need to resolve.”
It is a murky situation that will take time to resolve, and it’s one that will not become any clearer once the club dilemma is resolved.
The RFU are still determined to hold the four agreed autumn internationals this November against New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and Australia, as are their southern hemisphere counterparts. But the outlook for those Tests to go ahead looks bleak at best, and Sweeney confirmed that “back-up and contingency plans” are being drawn up.
The most likely situation, should the national teams fail to travel for one reason or another, is a Six Nations expansion, doubling up with the planned tournament next year that could move a month later to March and April to create the first ever home and away tournament. However, that is not the only option currently being looked at, with the RFU not required to make a final decision until mid-August on what Eddie Jones and his side will face this autumn.
Sweeney explained: “In terms of northern hemisphere options, you’ve got the option of a straightforward home and away (Six Nations), you’ve got the option of a competition with just Six Nations teams and you’ve got the other option of Six Nations teams possibly with bringing in additional invitational sides to play as part of that competition structure. So we’re looking at those three.
“It’s a bit early to say at this stage. It’s an opportunity to be creative in terms of what you can do with that. We also see the possibility here… I’m assuming that come the autumn, rugby fans will be really keen to enjoy getting back to normality and getting back to watching rugby again and it’s an opportunity for us to maybe create some type of festival of rugby to celebrate what the game’s about, it’s values and it gives you the opportunity to create something maybe different.”
In the weeks ahead, there is an incredible workload in front of the game’s biggest stakeholders, with the headache that is the global calendar also taking into account the British and Irish Lions tour next July that could come to be heavily affected by the season shake-up. Until the picture becomes clearer, rugby won’t be back at a professional level, and with other sports itching to return at the earliest possible opportunity, that will prove hard to swallow for a sport facing a tougher ask than any other to return amidst a pandemic.