Allan Massie: Clubs and countries must find a compromise or both will suffer

Disruption to season due to coronavirus pandemic means national unions and clubs can’t have what each wants this autumn, so goodwill is required on both sides.

Scotland's Blair Kinghorn in action against Argentina at Murrayfield in November 2018. The SRU will hope the coronavirus pandemic relents so that this autumn’s series can go ahead. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS
Scotland's Blair Kinghorn in action against Argentina at Murrayfield in November 2018. The SRU will hope the coronavirus pandemic relents so that this autumn’s series can go ahead. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS

Nobody knows when live sport can return, and, apart from the unavoidable uncertainty, there are already clashes resulting from conflicting interests. It’s no surprise that the chief among these is the old club or country question. Which takes priority?

At the moment everything is up in the air, but on the one hand there are plans for more international matches in the autumn, plans which might include Scotland’s two Tests in South Africa, originally scheduled for late summer. On the other hand, European Club rugby hopes to allocate these weekends to the completion of the 2019-20 Champions Cup. Clearly the two plans are incompatible.

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The ordinary fan, employing ordinary common sense, may say: “Coronavirus has upset the apple-cart. No good crying over spilt milk. The sensible – that is, the common sense – response should be to write the 2019-20 season off, declare it to be as dead as the Monty Python parrot”, and start afresh on a brand-new season as soon as the politicians permit.

European Professional Club Rugby will have none of this and rejects the suggestion that postponed Internationals should make use of dates already allocated to EPCR for the first rounds of next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. Its chairman, Simon Halliday, once an accomplished England centre, has laid their position on the line. “When you have club tournaments locked into multi-year contracts with partners and broadcasters, which is the lifeblood of the game, you can’t just cancel everything. If we don’t do what we are contracted to do, then there are ramifications. We can’t be bailed out by World Rugby. We don’t have that luxury.”

In other words, it’s one thing for amateur clubs in amateur leagues to accept that season 2019-20 is over and done with, however disappointing this may be, but the position of the professional clubs, and their leagues and cups, is different. They are businesses and they have contracts with other businesses as well as with players and other staff. Moreover, almost all the Premiership clubs in England run at a loss, as, I assume several do in France, while the pro clubs in Scotland, Ireland and Wales all depend to a greater or lesser extent on the financial health of their national union.

Of course coronavirus is playing havoc with businesses everywhere. Many are going to the wall, many urgently seeking to renegotiate contracts or their credit facilities.Sport can hardly escape the contagion.

Then the national unions are in the same boat, one which is shipping water. They too have contracts with broadcasters and commercial partners, and, far more than the clubs, they depend also on attracting paying spectators. The SRU’s greatly improved financial position has come about in part from a succession of full houses at Murrayfield. Go back ten years to the autumn internationals of 2010 and the attendance for the New Zealand game was under 57,000, for the South African one less than 36,000. Nor was the ground full for any of the Six Nations matches against Ireland,Wales and Italy the following spring. One can understand why the unions are in need of internationals scheduled for this autumn and eager to slot in one or two more to compensate for the missed earnings from summer tours. Clearly the national unions and the clubs can’t have what each wants this autumn. Satisfying both would be like pouring a litre of beer into a pint mug and spilling none of it. If both aren’t to suffer, each must yield something and a compromise be found.Goodwill is required on both sides, and both will lose if it’s missing.

What we are seeing now is shadow boxing. It may of course be of no immediate relevance. We don’t know when restrictions on sport will be relaxed, or to what extent. Government warnings that we shall have to continue to practise social distancing – anti-social distancing might be a better way of expressing it – for a long time yet may mean that even playing behind closed doors – that is, for the TV cameras alone – will not be feasible for a contact sport like rugby. Golf yes, tennis yes (singles anyway), the front row of the scrum, absolutely not.To which one might add that the necessary provision of ambulances and medical staff may not be possible for months. Moreover it may be a long time before countries and cities are prepared to welcome the influx of thousands of visiting fans for a game of rugby or football.

Of course we long for the return of live sport – the return to what we consider normal life. But unless the coronavirus pandemic relents more quickly and to a greater degree than at present seems likely, we may have to be patient for a long time yet. A bleak thought, but these are bleak times.



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