Rugby calendar facing tectonic shifts including possible later Six Nations; July tours off
European rugby union’s top-tier Six Nations competition could be moved to later in the year as part of an overhaul of the entire international calendar, it has been reported.
According to the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper, a conference call yesterday involving a working group representing unions from the northern and southern hemispheres discussed the idea of switching the Six Nations to March and April, from the established timeslot of late January, February and March.
Moving the Six Nations, which involves England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy, to later in the year would allow it to take place at the same time as The Rugby Championship, contested by South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, if the start of the latter tournament is brought forward from August to April.
It is reported that ‘elements’ of the Six Nations are open to the idea, which would mean virtually all the world’s top international rugby union teams would be in action in April.
In addition, if the number of windows for international rugby each year are reduced, it would allow players to spend more time with their club sides.
Other changes that have been proposed include back-to-back tours by the northern hemisphere nations of their southern counterparts, and vice versa.
In October, the likes of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand would host the European sides, before travelling north in November for return matches against those same opponents.
July is usually the month when European teams visit the southern hemisphere and freeing up that slot would enable The Rugby Championship to be played earlier in the year.
Bill Beaumont, the re-elected chairman of World Rugby, stated recently that while he was in favour of back-to-back international series in the autumn, he did not expect radical changes to the Six Nations.
He said: “What would move would be July and November. So the north go south in one month and then immediately after, the south go north the next month.”
However, while discussing the Six Nations, he said: “Why would you move it? Certainly that would not be the intention currently. It is not affecting anyone else’s window on the global calendar.”
He did reiterate that he intended to present a new version of the global Nations Championship, which was rejected last year after failing to gain the support of all the leading unions.
The 2020 Six Nations was postponed, with four matches still to be played, in March because of the spread of the coronavirus, and there are hopes it can be completed later in the year.
World Rugby confirmed today that, as expected, this year's summer tours by European teams to the southern hemisphere had been called off amid the ongoing pandemic.
England were due to visit Japan, Wales had scheduled matches in Japan and New Zealand, Scotland were to play away to South Africa and New Zealand and Ireland were to head to Australia.
In a statement, World Rugby said: "Extended travel and quarantine restrictions that apply to numerous countries, and concerns over adequate player preparation time, mean that any sort of cross-border international rugby competition cannot be hosted in July.
"Monitoring of the potential impact on the remaining 2020 international windows continues in collaboration with international rugby stakeholders and the respective authorities."
It added that all parties would be involved in the evaluation of potential contingency options with a view to having an aligned calendar for the rest of the year, with matches subject to rules on travel, quarantine and health advice and player welfare and hosting considerations in line with World Rugby's 'return-to-rugby' guidance.
Meanwhile, the European Professional Club Rugby body has said that the finals of this season’s top-tier Heineken Champions Cup and second-tier Challenge Cup could potentially be held in October.
Both competitions were postponed indefinitely in March, but the EPCR has now said: “It is hoped that the 2020 finals could be staged on 16 and 17 October.”
It added that “every effort” would be made to conclude this season but that any resumption would be subject to official advice.
The body also said that the formats being considered for next season’s European competitions include a 24-team Champions Cup (instead of the usual 20), played over eight weekends, in order to get the competition played during a shorter timescale than normal.
Last month, the EPCR hit out at World Rugby’s suggestion that extra international matches could be held this October, calling the idea “not acceptable."
If international fixtures are held in the autumn, that would create huge logistical difficulties in trying to complete Europe’s pan-continental competitions at the same time.
Elsewhere, Rugby Australia has now received A$14.2 million ($9.16 million) from World Rugby to ensure it gets through the current financial crisis.
Rob Clarke, RA’s interim chief executive, said: “The funding, in combination with the extensive cuts made across the business, provides us with the short-term impetus to see through the pandemic.”
However, he added that it “does not solve all of the challenges”, and that “the board is continuing to work through its plans for organisational reform.”
The postponement of the summer tours mean that RA will be deprived of income from two matches against Ireland and one against Fiji.
The organisation has forecast losses of up to A$120 million in revenue if the professional game does not resume this year, and has been forced to stand down 75 per cent of its staff.
Clarke himself has only been in the role around a week, having stepped into the breach left by the resignation of Raelene Castle, RA’s former chief executive who left after serving three years.
He was approached by RA’s interim chairman Paul McLean to take on the position, although he said he only agreed to do so in a “short-term capacity”.
In other developments, Super Rugby, the premium competition for clubs from the southern hemisphere’s top nations, is mulling admitting two Japanese teams into a restructured competition from 2021, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
One of the possibilities being considered, for a season in which the competition is already set to experience substantial changes, is to let the two top-ranked sides from Japan’s Top League into a ‘Super Rugby finals’ series, involving eight teams.
There, they would take on the two best teams from each of Super Rugby’s conferences - New Zealand, Australia, and a joint South Africa and Argentina conference.
These domestic competitions, instead of a round-robin format, are seen as the most likely scenario for Super Rugby next year, with the season likely to be impacted by the logistical and financial repercussions of the pandemic.
Although the Sunwolves, Japan’s current representative in Super Rugby, are actually set to leave the competition before the 2021 campaign, the Herald has reported that because of the growing market for rugby in the country, the other southern hemisphere nations would be happy to see two sides feature in a revamped tournament.
The 2020 Super Rugby season was suspended in March after only seven rounds.
Earlier this week, New Zealand Rugby announced plans to hold a domestic interim competition to replace it, with its five Super Rugby teams playing each other over 10 weeks, albeit behind closed doors until further government advice.