SLOWLY but surely, we are closing in on a solid plan for the return of professional and international rugby, although there are still a few significant hurdles to be navigated, as demonstrated by the suggestion that French clubs are considering legal action against World Rugby over their decision to expand this Autumn’s Test match window by three weeks.
Although the cash involved is not in the same stratosphere, it doesn’t get any easier at the other end of the food chain, as Sheila Begbie and her ‘Rugby Development’ team have found in recent weeks whilst trying to come up with a plan for the return of the Scottish club game.
It has been a long and convoluted process, but a way forward seems to be taking shape for the Premiership and National Leagues – which perhaps won’t delight all of the clubs, but is at least palatable to the majority.
Every club involved in league rugby in Scotland was issued with presentations at the start of July which outlined four proposals for a 2020-21 season structure. The presentations were tailored to each club’s specific tier but were all along similar lines.
The prospect of a full league season (with promotion and relegation as usual) was put forward. This would rely on games starting again in late October and would leave very little wriggle room for postponed matches (either due to weather or localised Covid lockdowns such as happened this week in Aberdeen) before the official close date of 24th May.
The other options involve playing localised cup and league competitions in conferences made up of nearby teams from the same or adjacent leagues [i.e. Premiership and National One being lumped together, and National Two and National Three combining].
Each club was initially invited to feedback on these proposals by the end of last week, but the volume of debate led to that deadline being moved back so that various league forums could meet again to hopefully agree some sort of consensus.
The Premiership is understood to have been overwhelmingly in favour of attempting a full league programme, National One (who meet tomorrow night) appears split, while National Two and Three (who met on Tuesday night) are in favour of a localised solution on the basis that there is too much uncertainty around to be dabbling with promotion and relegation. Issues such as players who are key workers not being able to commit for the foreseeable future come into play here. It has also been stated that another aborted full league season could be catastrophic to morale and finances.
This is where is gets complicated. Playing a full National League/Premiership season is an all-or-nothing thing because the National League Championship Rules regard the top four divisions as a single entity, but it looks like a compromise agreement may be reached through clubs stepping outside that jurisdiction for a one-off campaign – which would mean no promotion or relegation, but the Premiership preserved as the pinnacle of the club structure.
Essentially, this will mean National Two and Three going down one of the suggested regionalised routes as agreed at their joint forum meeting on Tuesday night, while the Premiership and National One will stay as distinct competitions, each playing in something which could look like a PRO14 style conference format, taking on teams inside their local conference on a home and away basis at the start of the season followed by cross-conference matches further afield as Covid restrictions hopefully relax later in the campaign.
There is still some way to go before this can be locked-in as the route forward – it needs to go through the Championship Committee who meet on 18th August, then be okayed by the Council and Board – but that appears to be the way the wind is blowing.
The Regional Leagues, by their very nature, are better suited to a regionalised solution to the challenges presented by Covid, while Super6 is a whole different can of worms (and therefore a discussion for another day).
In the meantime, there are other considerations for clubs to agonise about, not least the prospect of Murrayfield withholding some or all participation related payments if a full league season does not go ahead.
There has been very little detail provided so far on where the retrenchment process that Scottish Rugby’s chief executive Mark Dodson warned of in May is going to hit the business, prompting anxiety that the grassroots game is in the firing line. This might be a red herring, but the fact that clubs don’t know what is happening and we are now well into August is problematic, especially given all the other uncertainties they are having to contend with.
It is easy to forget that, fundamentally, this is all about the players. Several club officials spoke this week of their joy at seeing their guys back doing some sort of socially distanced training, while others expressed frustration that they did not feel ready to recommence without some sort of timeline to work towards. It is a tricky challenge but club rugby needs some clarity soon.