COVID-19 has sadly thrown a massive spanner into all aspects of our lives in 2020, and we are clearly a long way from being out of the woods yet. We don’t for a second deny the gravity of the situation, but by the same token are longing for some sense of normality to return. The effects of the pandemic on our beloved sport have been no less severe albeit for all the right safety reasons. However, the Unions themselves are likely to look back on this period as one of bungling and incompetence in maintaining the sport’s global presence. We the fans are left to sort through the wreckage, while players face an uncertain future and a game that seems to have become rather rudderless in terms of its global direction. In short the State of Rugby Union for the forseeable future is messy to say the least and much of the progress made towards establishing it as a world game in the last ten years could well be lost.
In this our first post since lockdown put rugby on hold back in March, we take a wander around the world and express our concerns as to where the game finds itself.
It’s still the sport’s biggest market, yet in terms of the international aspect of the game it’s a disaster. The pandemic has seen the already simmering war between the Unions and clubs reach new heights of ferocity. Meanwhile broadcasting rights have become so convoluted that many fans in a time of deep personal financial insecurity are faced with the choice of putting food on the table or taking out a raft of paid subscriptions to watch the game they love. This may be a short term cash fix for clubs and Unions, but to us it smacks of desperation and a complete lack of marketing sense. Bury the game behind a multitude of different paywalls and ultimately the fans disappear.
In France and England, the clubs are at their usual loggerheads with the Unions in terms of player access and schedules. The players themselves are in danger of becoming mere commodities to be used and abused, till ultimately the player base dries up as prospective players come to the conclusion that a short term career riddled with life changing injury risks and mediocre earnings is just not worth it. The average professional player in England or France is likely to be completely burnt out by an insane club and country schedule in the course of a mere five years.
In the Celtic leagues, the situation seems a bit better in terms of player management, but with the Scottish, Irish and Welsh Unions teetering on the brink of insoluble bankruptcy you wonder how long they can hold out to the financial pressures and considerations that are driving their French and English counterparts. As for Italian rugby well it would appear they may be the best placed to survive as the game has been in permanent crisis in the country since 2000, and as a result if they’ve survived this long well how’s another messed up year any different?
For the smaller countries though such as Georgia, Romania, Spain and Portugal the next twelve months could well undo all the progress made in the last few years in terms of getting themselves on the international map. Spain and Romania already had serious issues with the sport’s governing bodies prior to the pandemic for breaking player eligibility rules and both nations could well face a further slide into oblivion. Georgia at least gets a much need shot of exposure in the forthcoming Autumn Nations Cup, and a good performance here could solidify the progress they’ve made over the last few years, even if it may not address the overall cash crisis that World Rugby is facing and therefore the limited pot with which to help emerging nations like Georgia.
Add to the mix an unholy battle for broadcasting rights, and your average viewer now has to have a bare minimum of at least three paid up subscriptions to catch this fall’s action. Meanwhile said broadcasters all have put geoblocks on their content for viewers like us in Canada where there are no agreements on broadcasting rights, leaving us with even less options to catch the action than our European friends. As the game gets hidden behind a myriad of paywalls in Europe, the sports global audience looks set to shrink even further.
SANZAAR (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina)
If you thought Europe was messy the picture is not much clearer South of the Equator, and in Argentina’s case rather alarming to say the least.
SANZAAR managed to get Super Rugby in Australia and New Zealand back underway over the summer, but limited it to only domestic competitions. Still it was a start and while the Australian competition was nowhere near the quality of its New Zealand counterpart, rugby fans did finally get to see some rugby of a relatively high standard once again.
South Africa unfortunately suffered the most dramatic effects of any of the four countries when it came to the pandemic. The country already in an economic crisis before COVID-19 really took hold, was brought to a standstill by the virus. Rugby found itself very much on the backburner in terms of the country’s list of priorities. Add in the fact that the pandemic made the long distance travel required to South Africa completely out of the question, and suddenly South African rugby franchises found themselves very much out in the cold. Even when Super Rugby resumes in its new format for 2021, South African franchises will have no part in it. Instead, South Africa’s Super Rugby sides will be plying their trade in Europe’s PRO 14 from now on. While the travel times are still significant, at least they won’t have time changes to deal with. The other positive is that the PRO 14 will benefit from the addition of some quality sides like the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls. The injection of two Super Rugby castoffs the Cheetahs and Southern Kings have added little to the PRO 14 in the last two years, but at least with the new teams there is some scope here to make the PRO 14 a genuinely competitive international league.
However, we have our doubts that either South Africa or Argentina are likely to set the world alight at this year’s rescheduled Rugby Championship, now to be held in Australia in November and December. Given the respective turmoil in both countries and lack of playing time for players compared to their Australian and New Zealand counterparts, and the generally poor quality of Australian rugby in general this year’s rescheduled Rugby Championship looks likely to be a very one sided affair in favor of men wearing black jerseys.
In the case of Argentina, the picture is particularly bleak. After only two short years in Super Rugby, Argentina now finds itself and its players with little opportunity to play the game at home, as the Jaguares no longer have a Super Rugby berth. For us perhaps more than anything else this has been the most bitter pill to swallow as a result of all the changes brought about by COVID 19. Argentina’s progress through the ranks in the last ten years has been nothing short of remarkable as they have welded themselves into a potent International Test force feared by the world’s best. However, this has all come about by the increased exposure that Argentinian based players have had to first the Rugby Championship and then in the last two years Super Rugby. Sadly now though all that progress looks like it is going to be lost. Sure there are a lot of very talented Argentinian players in Europe and overseas and increasingly here in North America in the MLR, but the exposure they were getting at the Super Rugby level was proving invaluable to the development of a national squad as well as giving people in Argentina something to really get behind in terms of local professional rugby. We would be absolutely gutted to see Argentina lose their status as an international side to be reckoned with as a result of all of this, and with it all the hard work of the last ten years by players be undone in a matter of months.
Just like in Europe the broadcasting rights for the forthcoming Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup series are a veritable minefield, and once again for us here in Canada we are in danger of missing it all. World Rugby really needs some leverage here to ensure that coverage of the global game is both accessible and affordable to fans around the world, and not slip back into its stereotyped image of a rich man’s sport.
Once again the picture looks remarkably bleak with one exception – Fiji. For everyone else though there are more questions than answers.
The darlings and hosts of the last World Cup Japan, look like Argentina to be on the verge of taking some giant steps backwards. With little international exposure for them on the cards over the next year, despite a relatively robust domestic structure, Japan runs the risk of losing all the extraordinary progress made at the last World Cup. Furthermore, despite the developments in their domestic competition it is still foreign player top heavy with many overseas players seeing Japan as a short term cash fix – hardly conducive to the establishment of a strong domestic player base.
In the South Pacific, cash strapped unions in Samoa and Tonga are unlikely to get much help or exposure over the next year, resulting in a further decline in the competitiveness and skill levels of these proud rugby nations. Furthermore allegations of corruption and lack of concern for player welfare plaguing the Samoan Union are even less likely to be resolved in the near future further weakening this rugby nation who in the 90s was more than capable of World Cup upsets – just ask Wales.
The only country that seems to have been thrown a lifeline in all of this is Fiji. Fiji as always were one of the most entertaining sides at the most recent World Cup. A country whose players approach everything they do with their hearts on their sleeves, once more caught the hearts and minds of the global rugby public, and as a result find themselves along with Georgia included in this year’s Autumn Nations Cup in Europe. The exposure to the Six Nations giants over the course of six weeks, is something that Fiji has been craving for at least the last decade. The potential boost this will provide to an already highly talented squad will be fascinating to watch and bodes well for their future development. One of the few positives in an otherwise rather bleak autumn.
Ironically, despite being unable to watch much of this fall’s action on TV here in Canada, our Southern neighbors are much better served through NBC Gold, there have been some recent positive developments here in the frozen North when it comes to rugby.
Although the MLR season was cancelled for 2020, 2021’s offering is shaping up to be a good one. Some big name signings have come to the MLR over the summer, former England Captain Chris Robshaw joins San Diego Legion, while our own Toronto Arrows announced the signing of all star Pumas fullback Joaquin Tuculet from Argentina and the appointment of former Wales Coach Rob Howley to the Coaching team. It could well be a cracking season next year, and let’s face it the Arrows were looking pretty sharp before this year’s season got cut short. So even if we won’t get to watch the big boys play out on our TV screens this fall/winter at the International level there is plenty to look forward to once the Arrows get back to work in February. As rugby in the big traditional markets continues to be in flux, the relatively stable climate in North America may contribute to some significant growth in professional rugby’s newest market, provided the continued level of investment and interest continue to expand.
In the meantime we’re hoping we’ll get to catch some of this weekend’s action in some shape or form, and will be returning to provide our more regular analysis of what we think were the talking points of the big games coming up. Take care everyone and let’s all stay positive and hope that the broadcasters in this country come to their senses!!!!!
WELL DONE EVERYONE – PERSERVERANCE PAYS OFF!!!! TSN IS NOW SHOWING THE BLEDISLOE GAMES OVER THE NEXT TWO WEEKENDS!!!!! MORE ON THE TV LISTINGS PAGE!!!