On the surface, a joint statement from both SANZAAR and the Six Nations around long overdue discussions on the alignment of northern and southern seasons should be seen as a good thing.
I’m still quite sceptical as to whether it can happen, and indeed, how much actual progress has been or can be made. But the fact discussions are actually taking place is a good thing for rugby the world over.
No doubt, we’ve all seen the joint statement, or at least the reporting around it since its release late last week.
“SANZAAR and the Six Nations have been working closely over the lockdown period against a set of key principles between the parties, to develop and agree proposals for an aligned global calendar,” the SANZAAR version of the statement read.
“Even though there may be different preferences, from the outset the nations have adopted a mindset that has sought to eliminate self interest and recognise that the international and club game have shared mutual benefits that if approached and managed correctly can enable both to flourish.
“A further consultation process, in total transparency with unions, clubs and players, will commence as all parties work towards an aligned global calendar that can deliver a clear and coherent narrative.”
Pretty much all of the reporting around the announcement carried the same themes as outlined in the statement, that a global calendar would “improve player welfare” and “improve narrative and competitiveness of international and domestic competitions around clear windows”.
The major goal of these discussions will be to play the Rugby Championship and the Six Nations at the same time in a pre-specified window.
Currently both overlap with the European club season. The Rugby Championship (after Super Rugby is completed) clashes with the start of the northern season, while the Six Nations forces breaks in the latter part of the European club schedule.
Re-elected World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont probably kicked off the latest round of talks, ensuring that the highly promising but quickly vetoed Nations Championship concept would become an election topic for the top job last month. He re-iterated his commitment to the idea after his election win.
So why am I sceptical?
Well, for one thing, the SANZAAR release came through around 6pm on Friday night on the Australian east coast, the time commonly referred to in the media as bin night or junk time, with the timing so late in the weekly news cycle that it won’t get a lot of airtime and with really only the weekend papers left to pick up the story.
And that equated to early Friday morning in the UK and Europe, but it still wasn’t really discussed more widely than the initial reporting of the joint statement.
This in itself has been a major curiosity for me.
Think back to when the Nations Championship concept was first raised, and again when it was voted upon and ultimately knocked on the head. It was incredibly well covered with analysis, discussion and opinion pieces throughout the international rugby media in the days leading up to and following the vote.
But this time around, there’s been very little at all.
There was some discussion around what a global season might look like when Beaumont was first returned to office, but nothing since, and now, almost a week since the announcement, there’s been virtually no follow-up discussion to what was announced.
And considering how much this absurd idea of playing rugby without scrums and mauls has been discussed and opined this last week, outright silence on a matter as big as an aligned global season feels very strange to me.
The other thing I keep coming back to is the line in coming together to issue the statement, that the ten suddenly co-aligned nations “have adopted a mindset that has sought to eliminate self interest”.
Again, on the surface, this sounds fantastic. Self interest has been arguably the biggest detriment to rugby since it went professional a quarter of a century ago, and even as recently as a month ago reared its head on both the Beaumont and Agustín Pichot sides of the chairman elections.
The idea of the Six Nations and SANZAAR being able to put that aside and align the seasons seems noble, right up until the point of one of them actually moving their international season to align with the other. Because we all already know who that will be, don’t we?
Beaumont’s follow-up comments to the Nations Championship concept being revived in that same media briefing session back in early May told us as much.
“Why would you move the Six Nations?” he said, instructive and revealing all at the same time.
“The Six Nations is owned by the Six Nations and has been going for 150-odd years. Certainly, that would not be the intention currently. It is not affecting anyone else’s window on the global calendar. It’s a six-week tournament that has been played in February/March time since I was a lad.”
So if there really is a desire to play the Rugby Championship and the Six Nations at the same time in a pre-specified window, it can really only mean one thing, can’t it?
The flipping of the southern hemisphere season, which would see the Rugby Championship played early in the calendar followed presumably by whatever Super Rugby looks like in future seasons, with the southern international window in September-October, and finishing the year with the northern internationals in November.
These southern and northern Tests played later in the year look to be the way Beaumont might get the Nations Championship concept over the line, with the Six Nations and Rugby Championship earlier in the year acting as a first round.
But if this is the way it all goes down, it only leaves me with questions.
Like, for one, what are the Six Nations actually giving up, in the stated intention of improving the “narrative and competitiveness of international and domestic competitions around clear windows”?
What are the benefits to the SANZAAR nations – and expecting that Japan and Fiji will be part of future thinking for the Nations Championship – in flipping their season on its head?
And what of the clubs? Even overlooking the idea of transparency, does anyone think the clubs – even just the French clubs – really want to “work towards an aligned global calendar that can deliver a clear and coherent narrative”?
There’s been no evidence of that so far in 25 years, so what has suddenly changed?
My gut feeling is that this common objective of shaping the “the options that have been developed in an effort to resolve an issue that has held the game back for many years” is heading toward a solution that is a long way from equitable give and take.
And while I’ll be fascinated to see where discussions and developments go from here, that doesn’t sound like something that has eliminated self interest to me.