Rugby’s Summer becomes the new Winter

Theresa May would have felt right at home at Twickenham. Even a workable Brexit deal sometimes feels more achievable than locating the solution to rugby union’s unfeasibly tight fixture calendar. For a quarter of a century, if not longer, the sport has been trying to squeeze a globally-accepted quart into a disputed pint pot and the eureka moment has yet to materialise.
We still live in an age where the faintest of tweaks, largely irrelevant in the wider scheme of things, are hailed as triumphant advances. No English player, for example, will be permitted in future to be involved in more than 35 matches per year or start more than 30 games a season, down from 32. Hold those exultant trumpets: in the southern hemisphere and Ireland many top players already play a third fewer games. The off-season? Blink and you’ll miss it from a fan’s perspective. Summer is about to become the new winter, with the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2021 concluding on the first weekend in August. The following domestic season is due to start on 12 September. Admittedly, the English players on the Lions tour will have a mandatory 10 weeks off but, even so, a dubious new first awaits. For the first time competitive pro games involving English players or teams will take place in every single month of the calendar year.
There will now be only two Augusts in the next five summers – 2020 and 2022 – when there will be no meaningful rugby played. The official disclaimer is that no individual will be playing rugby for 11 months of the year. But the inescapable truth is that the calendar is expanding at precisely the moment all sides accept that playing the sport has never been more physically demanding. Stick that slogan on the side of a bus.
No one yet knows how ruinous the recurring failure to embrace a less is more approach will ultimately prove. There are already some unhealthy side-effects. Take the Lions, the most universally loved and commercially vibrant team in the game. Their next tour is already being compromised like never before: it will last five weeks and incorporate eight games.
For the moment the players – aka the meat in the sandwich – appear to have mostly been placated and strike action is not on the horizon. Given the increasing uncertainty surrounding the professional game’s finances, at home and abroad, many have clearly concluded they have little choice but to suck it up, trusting those in authority to crack down hard on clubs who fail to grant their players the enforced rest – a five-week summer break plus the odd fallow week during the season – to which they are now entitled. If there is a silver lining to the new-age schedule it is that enlightened player management and mental wellbeing support will have to be taken ever more seriously.
In the meantime, take a step back and ask yourself three questions. Does an 11-month season feel like progress? Does summer rugby union in England – rubbing shoulders in June with football World Cups, Test cricket, Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and rugby league – float your pedalo? And will these announcements be hailed in 10 years’ time as the moment professional rugby union saw the light? Only incurable optimists and gluttons for punishment will be answering yes to all three.