Is the new global rugby calendar as good as it sounds?
World Rugby have announced a new rugby calendar for 2020-32 – Rugby World looks at what it means
A global rugby season has been at the heart of many a discussion since the game went professional 20 years ago and last week World Rugby announced a new ‘optimised’ international calendar for the period 2020-32.
It’s not quite the ‘global season’ many envisaged, where everyone around the world would start and end their seasons at the same time. Still, some of the top-line changes should lead to the growth and development of the game worldwide.
But is this new calendar really as good as it sounds? And is player welfare, World Rugby’s “number one priority”, truly at the heart of the changes? Rugby World looks at a few of the key points…
A new July Test window
There are a few changes to the international windows. The November window will move forward one week, so Tests will be played in the first three weeks of the month, and the World Cup window will also be cemented in the calendar but from 2023 will start one week earlier, in the second week of September.
The biggest change, however, is that the current June window will be moved to July. This means Super Rugby can be completed before the SANZAAR countries host northern hemisphere teams in a Test series. These will comprise of three Tests in the first three weeks of the month, apart from in the years after a World Cup when just two Tests will be played. The other benefit of the switch, according to World Rugby, is to promote “optimal preparation time”.
Premiership Rugby have confirmed that there will be two weeks between their final – now to be played at the end of June – and the first Test of England’s tour. An improvement on previous situations where the England players involved in the final had to hop on a long-haul flight a day or two after the domestic season’s climax ahead of a Test the following weekend. For example, in 2014, England’s first Test against New Zealand was seven days after the Premiership final.
It’s good that the impact of a World Cup on players has been recognised with the reduction of the subsequent tours reduced from three Tests to two, although removing them from the calendar altogether might have been better, and it’s right that the club competitions were involved in these discussions and that the new schedule is looking to support their growth – but has player welfare really been the top priority?
Player welfare at heart of the decision-making process
This was one of the key points made by World Rugby when they announced the new calendar and the International Rugby Players’ Association (IRPA) were involved in the discussions in San Francisco in January. They talk about “prioritising rest periods”. Yet drilling down into the detail, it’s not clear where these fit in.
Let’s look at the European leagues. Premiership Rugby’s plan is to start in September and finish at the end of June. It is likely that the Pro12 follow a similar schedule for they will need to be in line when it comes to determining when European games will be played. The Top 14 tends to start a little earlier, in late August, (they have four more fixtures to play) and finish at the end of June.
So if we take an England international, this is how their year would look: Start playing league rugby in September, three Tests in November, Six Nations in February-March, Premiership final last weekend of June, three Tests in southern hemisphere in July, five-week rest period, back in training towards the end of August.
Players would still be limited to 32 games a campaign and it is compulsory that they have five weeks of rest before returning for pre-season training, but it’s still an 11-month season.
Yet if they’re not returning to training with their clubs until the last couple of weeks in August, they could only have a two- or three-week pre-season. Okay, clubs will use individual management programmes for their international players and might hold them back until, say, October so they can fit a longer conditioning period in, but what if they endure a terrible start to the season or are hit by injuries in a certain position? This isn’t an ideal world, it’s reality. Circumstance could conspire to mean that some international players need to turn out in that first league game.
Even if they don’t, will they still have a long enough pre-season? There have been endless interviews with players when they extolled the virtues of having a full pre-season. It’s the chance to get over any niggles and develop the fitness base needed to play elite rugby, as well as a mental break from the pressure and even the ‘grind’ of professional sport. Will the curtailing of this pre-season period lead to more injuries and/or drops in performance?
When talking to Rugby World last year about the sheer volume of rugby being played, IRPA executive director Rob Nichol said: “The key to this is being able to firstly ensure players get a period of rest, followed by a period of conditioning where they get adequate time to prepare for a competition and playing season. We feel between 12-14 weeks, possibly more, is required to achieve this.”
Well, this structure doesn’t seem to get close to this for international players while even those not playing Tests or other international competitions – they could be back in club training three or four weeks earlier – would fall short.
It’s clear why Premiership Rugby want to extend the season to the end of June. It means there are less overlaps between league games and Test matches. At the moment games are played both in November and during the Six Nations. Reducing the clashes means those clubs who provide the most international players should be able to pick their strongest team more often, rather than losing players en masse for Test periods when they might also have key league fixtures.
Lengthening the season also means players can be rested at different points of the campaign – a weekend off here and there – but the question of how players can complete an effective pre-season is the one looming over this new calendar.
A 39% increase in Tier One v Tier Two fixtures
There will be a minimum of 110 Tier One v Tier Two matches played between 2020 and 2032 – a huge increase. The aim is to provide more “meaningful fixtures” for emerging nations and this should help those countries to become more competitive. As Warren Gatland has so often pointed out: You only get better by playing the best.
Take Georgia. They have enjoyed a lot of success in the top Rugby Europe competition for a while, so last year World Rugby helped to arrange a tour to the Pacific Islands, where they were unbeaten, and they also played Scotland in the November window. Those Tests against different and/or better opposition will no doubt have aided their development. Japan, too, could only progress so far when they were thrashing all-comers in the Asian 5 Nations, so more competitive fixtures for these teams is key.
The SANZAAR unions are committed to hosting Tier Two nations in the new July window and the Six Nations unions will host a guaranteed six Tier Two fixtures each November (basically one each). Georgia and Romania will host matches against Six Nations unions in July, the USA, Canada and Japan will also host tours, and France and England are among those countries who will tour the Pacific Islands in this 12-year period.
The rankings after World Cups will also be used to determine which Tier Two nations are included in the schedule to ensure the top emerging teams are given Tier One fixtures on merit. For example, if Germany continue to make strides – and no doubt rugby’s powerbrokers would love to see that happen given the commercial opportunities in the country – we could see them playing at Twickenham or the Stade de France before 2032.
In all, this is a hugely positive move for the continued growth of the game worldwide.
Mooted Six Nations and Lions changes
It has been reported in The Daily Telegraph that the Six Nations is set to be reduced to six weeks when this new calendar is introduced, with one of the fallow weeks removed. Again, has player welfare been properly considered?
Yes, teams play more games in a shorter period in a World Cup, but they have been building up to that tournament for months in terms of their fitness programmes and rest periods so they are in peak condition.
The Six Nations is played in the middle of the northern hemisphere season when players’ bodies are already feeling the effects of a gruelling fixtures schedule. Take Scotland’s injury list during this campaign. After the France game in Paris, not only were Josh Strauss and Greig Laidlaw ruled out of the tournament but around half the 23-man squad weren’t fit enough to attend the post-match function. If there hadn’t been a fallow week following that game, they would probably have been without even more players for the Wales fixture.
Injuries will always have an impact on the championship but halving the fallow weeks is likely to make that impact even bigger.
It has also been suggested that future British & Irish Lions tours will be reduced to eight games from the current ten. This comes down to balancing tradition, and the very essence of Lions tours, with player welfare. Ten games is already considered a short tour when you are trying to combine players from four nations into one team to take on the best Test sides in the world. If rugby’s powerbrokers want the Lions to have a realistic chance of winning Test series, they need ten-game tours; otherwise there simply isn’t enough time to hit upon the best combinations before the first Test.
However, such a tour at the end of a long season is a huge strain on players. Would it work to shorten the club season and scrap the Anglo-Welsh Cup (or equivalent) in Lions years, perhaps playing the finals in early June and allowing the touring squad time to prepare? Then starting the following season a couple of weeks later so players get adequate rest/pre-season time? And then ensuring all Lions players have a longer mandatory rest period upon their return?
It’s a tricky problem to solve in the modern era with crowded schedules, but with all of this player welfare should be the leading factor in making any of these decisions.
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