As with all sports, rugby union was met with mass disruption when the COVID-19 pandemic began. All top-flight games were cancelled, with the Premiership suspended on 8 March and the final round of Six Nations never taking place.
With the world gradually opening back up from lockdown, plans are being put in place for the return of rugby, but some in the sport are arguing that structural changes are needed.
The Northern hemisphere nations have borne the brunt of the impact, as lockdown happened in the middle of the season. Only the Premiership is set to return: the French Top 14, Guinness Pro 14 and all lower English leagues have been abandoned.
Top flight English rugby will be played in the middle of summer
With nine games still to play, the Premiership is due to resume on 15 August behind closed doors. Relegation has already been decided due to Saracens being penalised for breaching the salary caps for several seasons, but Exeter only holds a five-point lead at the top.
This means for the first time in history, top-flight English rugby will be played in the middle of summer. Some coaches, including Scotland’s Gregor Townsend, have argued that this should become the new norm. By moving the season to the summer there would be a synchronised global rugby season which would have massive impacts for the game.
Advocates for the change have argued that attendance and interest in the sport would benefit. Rugby would no longer have to compete with the sporting behemoth that is the Premier League, and the casual fan would be more likely to travel to watch a game live if it’s during a pleasant July evening rather than a bitter January afternoon. Attendance could be everything for the Premiership, as all clubs have posted dramatic losses due to the season suspension; for some, a significant increase in ticket sales would hand them a financial lifeline.
Rugby will not be the first choice for many if it is competing with a Test series
However, this would lead to the cricket and rugby seasons conflicting. While cricket does not draw the numbers that football does, there is a greater crossover of fans between cricket and rugby, and rugby will not be the first choice for many if a midtable clash is competing with an England Cricket Test series.
Moving to the summer would most likely change the style of the game. For many years northern hemisphere teams play tighter than southern hemisphere teams, and this is mainly due to the rugby season in the north played in the cold, wind and rain. Moving to the summer would bring to an end the style of rugby dominated by the forwards.
With harder ground, drier conditions and less wind, backs will certainly become the emphasis of the game. Unsurprisingly, ex-England captain and coach and the personification of forward’s rugby Martin Johnson came out vehemently against the move to a summer season.
This may be a sweeping generalisation, however. While England and Ireland are the torchbearers for tactics centred around the forwards, the unique French style of rugby could not emphasise the role of the backs more.
South Africa has the possibly the strongest pack of forwards in the world
Looking at southern hemisphere teams, South Africa has the possibly the strongest pack of forwards in the world despite playing in far warmer conditions than any northern hemisphere team. A change to the summer might mean forwards getting slightly leaner, but professional rugby won’t be leaving props on the touchline.
Again, all of the previous arguments have been made looking at the professional context, but the change to a summer season would likely be detrimental, and certainly not popular. Rugby occupies a big space in the winter calendar of its casual players and fans, and the muddy conditions that each match is played in are certainly romanticised by the community. Moving to the summer would risk a drop in player numbers, as the harder ground would mean more injuries and higher temperatures more uncomfortable playing conditions.
No rugby-starved fan is going to complain about the return of the Premiership to complete the season this summer. Greater, structural changes towards a synchronised global season as a knee jerk reaction to the disruption of COVID-19 would, however, be damaging to the grassroots community in the UK. Any grand plan to move the season must put players, both amateur and professional, first before any concerns about Premiership revenue.