Good luck finding a rugby fan, player, journalist or administrator who is happy with the current global fixture list. But does a solution exist?
Good luck finding a rugby fan, player, journalist or administrator who is happy with the current global fixture list. We all agree that the current state of affairs is a mess – but does anyone have a workable solution?
The 2014 edition of June 'international window' has been severely tainted by the farcical situation of squads from the northern hemisphere arriving in batches and then leaving in bits and pieces.
England and France facing New Zealand and Australia in their opening Tests without many of their best players not only diminishes the value of those results but the physical state of the players – from both the North and South – at the end of the month further underlines how the fixture schedules around the world have been drawn up with little consideration for player welfare.
South Africa having to release seven players ahead of the Saturday's Test with Scotland because it falls outside of the international window, and that so-called Wales trial in Cardiff that was missing a few names for the same reason, are further examples of an uncomfortable, unsustainable situation.
Planet Rugby has long been at the forefront of calls for the establishment of a truly global calendar, not least because we are fans of rugby in both hemispheres and we're fed up with being caught between two factions who fail to recognise how much they can benefit from each other.
So imagine our delight, last November, when the International Rugby Players' Association joined the call for the creation of a revamped, integrated global calendar.
“We're in a unique position – for the first time since rugby went professional, the major Northern and Southern Hemisphere competition and commercial structures are on the table at the same time,” said the IRPA's chairman Damian Hopley.
“We see this initiative as beneficial for the global game,” added Ireland's Jonathan Sexton.
“From a player perspective, we urge our leaders to get in a room together, take a positive attitude and see what can be done.”
I was bubbling with excitement when it was revealed that the IRB had established a global-season working group to examine the feasibility of creating an international calendar. It seemed our dreams were finally coming true.
You all know what happened next: Rugby bosses on both sides on the equator conspired to extend our current dilemma by at least five years by signing up for what is, essentially, more of the same. (Sure the European Cup will have a new label and Super Rugby will have a few new teams but, calendar wise, nothing has changed.)
Of course it's easy for me to complain. Finding a solution that works for everyone is a lot harder since the biggest obstacle to harmony between the hemispheres is never, ever, going to disappear.
You see, the root cause of our problem is the fact that the world's axis is tilted at an angle of 23.5Â° degrees to the sun, creating the phenomenon known as 'the seasons' – you may have heard of these before….
You don't need to be an expert meteorologist to know that playing rugby in places like Durban in February is nothing short of a health hazard. At the same time of year, conditions in England are pretty bleak, meaning that when the weather is half decent in July and August, holidays and 'summer sports' are top of the agenda for most households with a television and/or the disposable income available for tickets to sporting events.
The basis of the IRPA's proposal – which still has the backing of the SANZAR unions – is shifting the current Test window from June to July.
Crucially, that would do away with the stupid month-long break that comes four-fifths of the way through the Super Rugby season. It would allow enough time for the European domestic finals to be played and northern hemisphere teams to prepare properly for their tours. The idea would also see the British and Irish Lions, from the 2017 series in New Zealand onwards, touring in a clear window after Super Rugby with an improved ability to deliver full-strength midweek games.
But there are some major drawbacks to the proposal. A shift in the northern hemisphere season would mean moving the world's oldest international tournament, the Six Nations, a notion which is totally unacceptable to the Home Unions. It would also mean rescheduling all of the northern hemisphere domestic seasons to avoid having a “dead” month in June and to allow players stufficient time to recover for the next season. With so many broadcast contracts already in place, it's simply not feasible.
With many people in Europe on holiday in July, the move would also mean that rugby would be competing for the severely limited audience with traditional summer events like Wimbledon, the Tour de France, the Olympics and the Fifa World Cup etc.
IRB chief executive Brett Gosper admitted during a visit to New Zealand last month that there was little chance of finding a solution that suited everyone.
“There's so much rugby and there are so many interests that it's very difficult to just form a global calendar, easy as it sounds,” he told reporters.
“They have been down this route prior to my arrival several times and had great difficulty in reconciling all the different interests,” he said.
“It seemed like a huge Rubik's cube. It's difficult. You have the club interests that have to be reconciled as well.”
The goods news is the CEOs of all the major Unions are now directly involved in solving the puzzle. The bad news is, nothing will change before 2019 and unless all the role players are willing to make some serious concessions – and their track record doesn't suggest they will – no progress can be made.
Since the current November window in hardly ideal either, perhaps the solution is to have a single, extended international cross-hemisphere window featuring home and away Tests? But when?
In the meantime, we can only repeat our cries for greater communication and cooperation. The least administrators could do is pick up the phone and try work with their colleagues to avoid blatant fixtures clashes.
A prime example of the current madness came in May, when there was only one Super Rugby game scheduled for the afternoon of the Heineken Cup Final. That's right, only two major rugby games happened in that time zone… yet they were played at the SAME TIME!
Before telling us that Super Rugby needs to expand to Singapore in search of a new audiences, perhaps our dear administrators should consider working together to cross-pollinate between fans who already love rugby.
If the game is to become a truly global sport to rival those round ball ballerinas, then the age of rugby bosses acting only in self interest without seeing the bigger picture must end.
We can't change the tilt of the world's axis but in the age of communication and professionalism it is possible to end the chaos. Will it ever happen? We can only hope…
By Ross Hastie