Wander past any local rugby club this month and the first-team pitch will be looking as pristine as it has ever done. Sadly, it is the question, “I wonder when they’re next going to play a competitive game on it?”, that is now most pertinent. Lockdowns are grim news for many businesses and individuals, but they threaten the very lifeblood of community rugby in Britain.
Listen, for example, to this heartfelt plea from John Inverdale, who in addition to his impressive broadcasting CV is now chairman of the National Clubs Association, the body representing the 48 English clubs in tiers three and four immediately below the Premiership and Championship. “The big concern is that people will just find other things to do with their lives. That’s not a concern if you’re Bristol or Leicester but it is a big problem if you’re Blaydon, Dings Crusaders or Worthing.”
For Inverdale, and many others, a potential Doomsday scenario is approaching. What if, for example, lockdown life persists into 2021 and little meaningful club rugby happens between now and April? At which point cricket starts to intrude, followed by football’s European Championship, the Olympics and sundry other distractions, and drags away more floating voters.
“Even if next season is normal and the fixtures are all in place, my concern is that the number of people getting excited about it may be 15-20% down on what it would have been a year earlier,” says Inverdale. “Financially, but also in terms of the relevance of the sport, that makes a big difference. We can’t afford to allow players and spectators to drift away from the game and for sponsors to find other places to invest their money. They need something to hang their hat on.”
At an NCA executive meeting on Monday night there was unanimous agreement on that front. With the entire season’s league fixtures having just been formally scrapped, a proposal has been submitted for a 15-a-side cup competition – starting in the new year on a regional basis initially followed by national knockout stages – to fill the void. Unless the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport can be otherwise persuaded, however, it will probably have to be played under adapted rules, potentially without any scrums at all. “I think we’re getting to the point where we would do it under any circumstances,” says Inverdale.
After a 35-year association with Esher, initially as a player, he is more than qualified to know how rugby people below the elite level are feeling. Many are still struggling to work out how lower-league football has been permitted to continue, with 600 people in attendance, when across the road the rugby club has largely remained shuttered and bolted. “We would love to get started on the basis that non-league football did,” says Inverdale, fully aware that from Thursday even that avenue will be temporarily closed.
Spare a thought, too, for all those frustrated schools and university players, social or otherwise, similarly affected. With all county and age-group representative matches also currently mothballed, what kind of knock-on effect will Covid have on the sporting development of the next generation? Lone goal-kickers can still soldier on alone on a deserted wintry field, pretending it is the final minute at Twickenham and the next kick could win a grand slam but, collectively, the season has so far been a nightmare. First-year students hoping to impress coaches have struggled to do so even in the socially-distanced bar.
None of this is remotely to minimise the genuine everyday horrors the virus is creating in many households, which is another reason why the NCA and Inverdale are having to proceed with care. “We’ve got a lot of clubs in certain parts of the country where Covid is very, very real. They want to say to the more gung-ho clubs: ‘Honestly, you don’t understand what it’s like here.’ There’s an unbelievable disparity in issues. You can’t have a generic, ‘We’re all going to do this, starting next Friday approach’. It doesn’t work like that.”
On the other hand, the clock is ticking. “What if, for a lot of players and spectators, rugby becomes a part of their lives but not an essential part?” asks Inverdale rhetorically. “Or something that sponsors quite like being involved in but are no longer absolutely set on? The most important thing is just to breathe life into clubs again. At the moment they’re just sitting there. Like a lot of small- and medium-sized businesses they’re not trading and you can’t continue on that basis.”
The final stats are in from the 2020 Six Nations championship and they make interesting reading. Only three champions in the history of the Six Nations have scored fewer than England’s 14 tries and only one title-winning side, dating back to Italy’s admission in 2000, has conceded more than the nine tries leaked by Eddie Jones’s team. Overall the 74 tries scored in the tournament was 10 fewer than last year, with England’s return their lowest since 2016 and a whopping 10 fewer than they touched down when they finished second last year. When coaches and players say there is more to come from England, they are not wrong.
And another thing …
This weekend, remarkably, is the last until the end of June 2021 without a high-profile English men’s club game or international fixture pencilled into the diary. Somewhere in the world, though, there is always a Test match waiting to happen and Australia and New Zealand will once again be getting it on, this time in Brisbane. Can the Wallabies beat the All Blacks at the fourth time of asking? Judging by last week’s 5-43 scoreline in Sydney, the answer is probably no.