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Opinion

Everything will be on the table when rugby eventually returns

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Expert
1st April, 2020
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3721 Reads

So how are we all coping during this unfortunate but necessary time of complete sporting shutdown?

Plenty of us are working from home, the kids are schooling from home, but the option of sporting from home sadly isn’t there anymore. Sure, the endless replays are there, and it’s cool to get involved with all these nostalgic polls on classic matches and best-ever teams and even a ranking of sporting trophies, but the reality quickly hits home late on a Friday that another weekend without sport awaits.

I have to admit that I’m quickly losing track of what day it is, with no games acting as a marker that the weekend is near.

Rugby, obviously, has not been spared. The game is on hold at every level from grassroots to internationals around the world, and though there is a light at the end of the tunnel – rugby will be played again – we simply don’t know how long the tunnel is at this stage.

And it’s the unknown that fuels our anxiety at the moment.

How long will we have to work from home? When will the kids be able to go back to school? How long before the cafes and the pubs open again?

Rugby will be played again. We all know that will be the case.

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But what rugby at the top levels looks like when it returns is anyone’s guess.

And that represents a massive opportunity for the game, not just in our part of the world, but the world over.

Whereas the professional game was essentially thrown together during the southern summer and northern winter of 1995-96, this indefinite period of no rugby allows a chance to reset the structure of the international and professional club/franchise seasons.

Though broadcast and rights deals would still exist for this and next season, we’re already seeing evidence of both broadcasters and governing bodies requesting a need to change or renegotiate payments with no content being delivered. And these same deals that might exist for next season have no guarantee of being delivered as intended.

You might have heard the term force majeure mentioned in recent weeks. It’s a legal term that essentially provides relief to parties unable to fulfil a contract because of an unavoidable or unforeseeable event.

I’ll let better qualified people than I argue what constitutes an unforeseeable event, but I will come back to that same old Boom Crash Opera line once again: these here are crazy times.

If we’re ever about to see contracts go unfulfilled, it’s surely in times of global pandemic. And it might be a race to see who plays the force majeure card first: the governing bodies unable to provide the rugby content, or the broadcasters either unwilling – or unable – to pay for it.

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What this all means in our neck of the woods for Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, and the SANZAAR partnership for that matter, is anyone’s guess.

Mark Nawaqanitawase on the run

(AAP Image/Chris Symes)

What we know as professional rugby now may look entirely different next season. Maybe even later this season.

Already we know that the governing bodies on both sides of the Tasman have formed committees to look into their rugby structures going forward. While both Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby still hope to get some form of domestic competition up and playing this season, both will be looking at contingencies for next season, too.

And they’ll be looking at contingencies for next year because we don’t know how long the borders will remain closed. We know they will open again at some point, but there is no time frame on that, nor will they necessarily be in sync. In fact, it’s entirely possible that Australia and New Zealand might have returned to some degree of normality while the African continent remains isolated.

Even if Australia did suddenly get a broadcast deal done for 2021 and beyond, SANZAAR may still not be able to deliver the 14-team competition promised for next season.

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So these think-tank committees will be looking at all sorts of options. They could be internal franchise-based comps, or they could be beefed-up versions of the NPC and the NRC with all the top players. There might be an opportunity for the islands. The trans-Tasman concept will almost certainly be explored, even if the appetite for it in NZ is currently lukewarm. The SANZAAR partnership could crumble by necessity.

Everything will be on the table. Nothing will be off the table.

And this will be replicated the rugby world over.

English Premiership and French Top 14 clubs are in danger. Who knows how many PRO14 clubs will survive? USA Rugby this week filed for bankruptcy.

Professional rugby as we know it may never look the same again. This wretched international crisis could bring a level of change upon the game of rugby that dwarfs even the move to professionalism.

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And when you think about it in those terms, it’s actually kind of fascinating to think where we might end up.