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Covid and dementia leave rugby union fretting over an uncertain future

Paul Rees
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

When World Rugby’s chairman, Sir Bill Beaumont, launched his re-election campaign a year ago, he said he was excited by the opportunities for rugby union the future held. Twelve months on, the feeling is one of apprehension rather than anticipation as the game finds itself squeezed in a vice of the coronavirus pandemic and legal action taken by former players diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

Related: Premiership Rugby refuses to rule out extending break amid 'serious concerns'

The professional game in Britain and Northern Ireland has all but shut down this weekend after the Top 14 clubs accepted the advice of the French government not to play the final two group rounds of the European Champions and Challenge Cups. Glasgow were due to face Edinburgh on Saturday evening in a rearranged 1872 Cup fixture after Saracens’ first match in three months at Ealing Trailfinders, but Premiership Rugby declined – despite a lack of slack in its schedule – to bring rounds forward to fill the vacuum after three consecutive weekends when matches were called off as a result of Covid outbreaks at clubs.

The start of the Top League Japan has been put back to next month after positive tests at six clubs, the French government said it would be monitoring transmission rates in Britain and Ireland before the start of the Six Nations and the British & Irish Lions met on Friday to discuss the tour to South Africa. That is highly unlikely to go ahead as planned, with no timetable there for a vaccination programme, meaning matches would be played behind closed doors and vital revenues lost.

A proposal to postpone the tour until next year was shot down by England and Ireland who are due to visit Australia and New Zealand respectively. The alternative to cancelling it is to stage the tour in Britain in the hope that by July spectators would be allowed in grounds thanks to the vaccine roll out in the UK.

It is the first trip under a new agreement with the Sanzaar unions that divides the proceeds more evenly than before. It is now roughly a 60-40 split in favour of the hosts and while the Lions playing at home has not proved popular with supporters, who have launched a petition to prevent it happening, it is estimated it would earn the Lions and South Africa up to 50% more. At a time of budget cuts being made by unions and clubs throughout the world, that is proving seductive.

When most of the world went into lockdown last March and Zoom replaced face-to-face contact, several administrators in both hemispheres saw it as an opportunity to reset the game after the cut and shut of 1995, when an amateur sport became professional at the top. As unions and clubs cut wages by 25% and furloughed some staff while making others redundant, there was talk of establishing a global season and aligning north and south so there were no overlaps between club and international rugby – and no more players caught in the middle.

Related: 2021: a year of hope or chaos for the biggest events in world sport?

Nothing has changed. The Autumn Nations Cup, a tournament created after the tours to Europe by the major southern-hemisphere unions were called off, was set up to keep the grassroots game alive in Europe. Without the income from Amazon for that tournament, all the unions would have had to make cuts to their spending on the grassroots.

But it was devalued by the Top 14 clubs in France, who threatened court action to prevent their players being released for all of Les Bleus’ six matches in the campaign. They settled with the French Rugby Federation so that no player made more than three appearances, never mind that France’s summer tour had been called off and that six Tests a year outside the Six Nations was the norm.

On Friday, the French Rugby Federation’s president, Bernard Laporte, was still insisting this season’s Six Nations will take place, saying there will be an expanded coronavirus testing programme for the tournament.

But the tail continues to wag the dog. The leading clubs in France and England have been given the authority to run their own competitions by their unions, but with the Rugby Football Union slashing its investment in the grassroots after posting substantial losses in the last year, it should turn its attention to Premiership Rugby, which has made no move to act on Lord Myners’s recommendations last year that it became more transparent after he reported on the salary cap affair.

There are no signs of any independent nonexecutive directors yet, just owners who treat a major arm of the professional game like a private club and expect the top flight to be ring-fenced with no concern about the consequences for clubs in the Championship and the leagues below; power without responsibility. After years of timidity, it is time for the RFU to exert its authority and fulfil its remit of running the game for the benefit of all.

The cuts to the grassroots, and the lack of rugby for 10 months, threatens participation, as does the concussion lawsuit instigated last month by former players including the England World Cup winner Steve Thompson. The game cannot say it did not see it coming. Professor Allyson Pollock wrote in the Spectator seven years ago: “It should not need professional players bringing class actions and litigation for everyone to wake up to the risks and costs of injuries and to safeguard children.”

A new year, but the same old problems. “The lack of certainty is the biggest concern,” said Gareth Davies, chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union and member of World Rugby’s executive committee until the end of last year. “There was an opportunity last March to sort things out in terms of structures and systems, but we ended the year with the farce of players not being allowed to play international rugby.

“My concern is that when life returns to what was normal, and who knows when that will be, how many club volunteers, who tend to be in their 60s and 70s, will return, and what will the impact be on playing numbers at the grassroots? This is a critical time for the game. It requires leadership.”

It may take CVC, which is about to link its investments in the Premiership and Pro14, with a stake in the Six Nations, to align the sport and maximise its potential. It is not in the past that the future lies.