France-Ireland postponed! It’s time for a global rugby season

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Italy's fly-half Kristopher Burton kicks the ball during their Six Nations match against England at a frozen Olympic Stadium in Rome. England won 19-15 (Image: AFP)

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Saturday night in Europe was icy cold. Parts of England experienced their coldest night ever, with a temperature of 18 degrees minus being recorded.

And, apparently, the gods of climate took no notice of the predictions of climate scientists, made less than a decade ago, that global warming would ensure that ‘snow would be so rare children won’t know it if they ever see.’

But the fact is that the France-Ireland Six Nations match in Paris had to be postponed due to icy conditions making the ground dangerous to play on for the players.

The other Six Nations match of the day, Italy-England played at Rome did get played but on a pitch covered with snow and with snow drifting in from time to time during play.

The match was a stirring affair. Both sides played well in what must have been hard conditions for expansive rugby. Yet the ball was in play a lot. There was some great back play from both sides.

Italy scored two tries, both by back and off mistakes by England. The side is now coached by a legendary French coach, Jacques Brunuel. It is a side on the up. If Italy can find a number 10 they could become a tier one side.

England, under their new acting coach Stuart Lancaster, are also a side on the up. Many of the miscreants from RWC 2011 have been booted out.

There is a different spirit in the side from the arrogant bully-boys of yesterday. Even Dylan Hartley has unclenched his fists and played hard, tough, uncompromising but without the niggle and dirt he showed earlier in his career.

If the RFU is smart it will give Lancaster the job permanently. And if this happens, England could have a team in the next year or two that plays attractive and robust rugby, and also winning rugby.

The excitement and flow of the game demonstrated that you can play rugby in snow.

And all those die-hards among the European rugby establishment who have resisted the call from southern hemisphere officials and from the owners of a number of prominent English clubs for professional rugby in Europe to play in a rugby year that matches that of the southern hemisphere would, in the past, point to the success in rugby terms of Italy-England and say that rugby should always remain a winter sport.

Unfortunately, the argument breaks down with the postponement of the France-Ireland match.

It is not as if icy conditions have not been encountered before. In the 1950s and 1960s straw was often placed on grounds on cold days leading up to Tests to provide a sort of blanket for the grass to keep out the ice. Murrayfield in Edinburgh, a notoriously cold city, even put electrical wiring under the grass to keep the ground from icing up.

Why this wasn’t done at Stade de France is something that I can’t comment on.

The most important point to make is not that rugby can be played under virtually any weather circumstances (except ice) but whether it should be played (at the professional level) at the coldest time of the year in Europe.

In the past whenever the argument that professional rugby should emulate professional league in Europe and not play in the worst of the winter months the pundits (the usual suspects alas) and the blazered officials (again the usual suspects led by the RFU) have dismissed the idea. Rugby is a winter game, they claim, and therefore it should be played in winter.

In 2004 the NZRU asked the IRB to consider a ‘global season.’ The IRB said they supported a ‘more concerted effort to establish a global season’ and then told the NZRU the Six Nations would continue to be played in February to perhaps April.

In other words, we are not interested. Eight years on and we are no closer to a global season. But we have had the first postponement of Six Nations match on grounds of bad weather.

During the 2011 RWC tournament, the issue of a global season came to the surface once more with the warning by the NZRU that if the IRB continued to insist on RWC tournaments being played in September, meaning a truncated The Rugby Championship (formerly the Tri Nations) then the All Blacks might be withdrawn from the tournament in protest.

Typically the IRB dismissed the threat and the usual suspects in the British rugby press said good riddance to the All Blacks, with Spain shaping up to be an excellent alternative!

Of course the history of rugby practice, on and off the field, is a history of the IRB, dominated by the Home Unions, resisting virtually every reform put forward until the argument and pressure for the reform is irresistible.

And this is what is happening with the concept of a global season.

But not long after RWC 2011, the owner of Bath, Bruce Craig, a billionaire who made his fortune in the pharmaceutical business, put the RFU on notice that unless there was a fundamental change to the rugby season, with the international game and the club game having their regulated block of time, ‘either in summer or whenever it is agreed to be played,’ then ‘club rugby can’t continue as it is.’

Craig wants international bodies to have 16 weekends in the year to run their competitions, when they usually have 11 or 12. ‘That leaves 36 weekends for the club game, to be played where we see fit,’ he argued, ‘and if that means summer, so be it.’

He was extremely critical of the IRB. ‘The IRB rules with a rod of iron. It’s a dictatorship.’ He implied that other owners in England were behind him in the push to get a global season. ‘It won’t take long to solve all this between sensible people.’ But if it isn’t resolved? ‘Then there will be conflict.’

If there is a conflict, the clubs in Europe will win. Why? In the SANZAR countries the players are contracted to their respective national unions.

This gives the ARU, the NZRU and the SARU control over where and when their players play. This was the arrangement that was sensibly put in place when rugby went professional in 1996.

But in Europe, the various national unions were lazy or stupid or both. They allowed the clubs to sign up their players. This means that the clubs are the major paymasters for the players.

Sooner or later, if the clubs don’t get what they want from the IRB (which has been dominated remember by the Home Unions), then the clubs will withdraw their players from international duty.

French clubs have already done this to Pacific Island players during the 2011 RWC. So there is a precedent for this action.

There is a great sense of deja vu about all of this, as far as I am concerned. During RWC 1999 I interviewed Nigel Wray, the owner Saracens. Wray’s office near Selfridges in the heart of London were spacious, oaken walled and lined with expensive sports prints. Wray is dapper and ultra-smart.

He told me his vision for Saracens was for their season to be played in summer and for supporters to be able to bring their family to matches played on warm Saturday afternoons.

Thirteen years on, Wray’s vision remains just that. But in January this year he said the unwillingness to move the Six Nations from its longstanding February/March slot, with the consequence that clubs lose their best players in the middle of the crucial league season, makes European rugby a ‘laughing stock’ in the southern hemisphere.

Something has to give on this issue. Dare I say it, but the IRB is skating on thin ice if it thinks it can resist a global rugby season for much longer.

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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