Rugby is preparing a new post Covid-19 era where big changes could be coming to the club game as part of a new global calendar.
There is a sense that the sport is yet to take off as many would have hoped in 25 years of professionalism and while World Cups and Six Nations get plenty of attention, there is a battle to appeal to a wider audience on a regular basis out of that.
I have already looked at what the Nations Championship could do for the game, which you can read about here.
So how could English club rugby change to fit in with the international game and reach its potential?
A reduced Premiership programme
One of the reasons for the global calendar is to avoid club v country disputes over player availability so that could mean the Premiership facing up to radical change.
Extending the season further can not be an option as players would be worn down to the ground even more than they are at the moment so the only way teams could have their internationals available on a regular basis would be by reducing the number of fixtures.
That could mean adopting a conference system used elsewhere in the world. The existing 12-team league could be split into two, where teams in each conference play each other home and away, while playing every other team once. That would reduce the number of games in the regular season from 22 to 16 with the top top two teams from each conference progressing to the play-offs.
Although ring-fencing appears inevitable, most rugby fans would favour promotion and relegation so ideally that would remain with the worst team after 16 rounds going down.
Even though Premiership clubs would be losing three home games’ worth of income a season, the product would be more valuable with the big stars able to play week-in, week-out, helping to build the rugby audience and be more appealing to broadcasters. And they could be able to host more games in a revamped cup competition, which I will come onto next.
There is much talk of rugby in the northern hemisphere becoming a summer sport but, call me a traditionalist, I would like to see it continue to be played in the winter. The season has already shifted back later in recent seasons and I see no reason why it has to move any more or be aligned with Super Rugby, which could continue in the southern hemisphere’s winter months.
And how about the Premiership and other European leagues being completed in one go over a four-month period? It would give the season more structure rather than a three-week block here and a four-week block there with European and cup competitions in between.
A new worthy cup competition
The Premiership Cup in its current guise has been a failure.
Clubs put out strong sides one week and weak ones the next, leading to bizarre and often one-sided games and it does not capture the imagination cup competitions once did in England.
Some may say scrap it, but it does still provide clubs with extra income and it would leave a void to be filled during the international periods – both points particularly poignant if the Premiership did reduce the number of fixtures to not play during the international periods.
There has to be a sense of realism that the cup competition is a distant third behind the Premiership and European competitions in terms of priorities for clubs but if it is to be worthwhile it has to stand for something.
The Premiership Cup – or Anglo-Welsh Cup before that – has often been described as a development competition but there is no way of gauging it. Some clubs stick to that mantra, others don’t.
A quota system would be a step in the right direction. If 15 players in the 23-man squad had to be either currently in or a product of that club’s academy system – and perhaps under the age of 26 – it would lead to better contests and reward clubs who produce the best homegrown talent. It would allow clubs to still field some of their senior stars as well as give them rest periods over the course of a long season.
Since rugby has gone professional, the cup competitions have also lacked the magic of the old John Player / Pilkington Cup. Of course, it would be unsafe to pit Premiership sides up against community clubs who only train a couple of nights a week but why not against Championship clubs given most of them are full-time?
Matches would be competitive, particularly as Premiership clubs would not be at full strength, and the chance that there could be shocks would make it more appealing. Having fixtures like Gloucester v Hartpury, Leicester v Nottingham and Exeter v Cornish Pirates would make it attractive to fans.
In recent years the gap between the Premiership and Championship has got bigger and bigger and that looks set to continue with the RFU cutting funding to England’s second tier and the increasing likelihood of the Premiership being ring-fenced. But wouldn’t it be great instead if CVC Capital Partners, the equity firm that took a 27 per cent share in the Premiership, could see the value in the Championship and invest in that too? A cup competition that involved clubs from both leagues would certainly allow the Championship clubs to grow and close the gap.
The competition of 24 teams could have six groups of four, with home and away fixtures, with the pool winners and best placed runners-up going through to the quarter-finals. Games would be played during the international periods and could bookend the Premiership season if the structure already discussed was implemented.
Why not also experiment with midweek games to avoid clashing with internationals and attract a wider TV audience? Hold the final at a prestigious neutral venue – perhaps the Olympic Stadium or outstanding new Tottenham Hotspur stadium with Twickenham likely to be unavailable – to give it a real sense of occasion.
As for the European competitions, there would be no need to change the format to what is the pinnacle of the club game in the northern hemisphere – the Champions Cup – but it could be held in one block later in the season when the weather is better for attractive rugby.
The season could therefore look something like this:
September-October: Internationals (Nations Championship / World Cup etc.); NH pre-season games and cup group stage (4 games)
November – February: Premiership season
March-April: Six Nations / Rugby Championship; Completion of cup competition (2 group games, quarter-finals, semi-final and final).
May-June: European competitions
July-August: Off-season and completion of SH season.