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The rugby union league season has been cancelled, so what happens next?

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Jake McCloud in action for Cambridge against Blackheath. Picture: David Johnson
Jake McCloud in action for Cambridge against Blackheath. Picture: David Johnson

In the end, it was an inevitable decision but the loss of league rugby union for a season leaves a big hole in the sporting landscape.

The Premiership was able to resume in September under the government’s elite return to play protocols, and the Championship remains on course to start in January 2021.

But from Level 3 down, which is termed the community game, the 2020/21 season has been cancelled.

Given the close contact nature of rugby, it is not really a surprise.

Scrums, line-outs, the upright tackle and mauls were all areas that raised concerns about the possible spread of Covid-19, without a bio-bubble being created – something that is not feasible in the semi-professional and amateur game.

It just felt that by publishing league fixtures during the summer, for the competitions to start in September, it was not taking into account the reality faced by the situation, either that or setting false expectations.

The writing was on the wall on September 24 when the RFU told the community game that there would be no competitive rugby before January, and the axe finally fell last Friday – prior to the government’s new national lockdown.

“I think this is probably the only decision the RFU could make – they were going to have to cancel league rugby,” said Cambridge director of rugby Richie Williams, with National League One featuring a large swathe of the country from Darlington Mowden Park to Plymouth Albion, and Sale FC to Old Elthamians.

“The biggest challenge now is for us to find ways of being creative and innovate as a club to keep players motivated, because ultimately it’s pretty tough for the players.

“We’ve been in limbo for the last couple of months around not knowing how this season is going to look, but now we’ve had the confirmation it gives us a bit more time as a club to do some other projects that we’ve been talking about for the last 18 months.

“Ultimately, we want to be playing competitively but that’s not going to happen and I think now it’s a real test of what we’re about as a club to see how we can adapt and react to this news.”

Cambridge director of rugby Richie Williams. Picture: Keith Heppell. (42987891)
Cambridge director of rugby Richie Williams. Picture: Keith Heppell. (42987891)

James Shanahan, the head coach of Cambridge University RUFC and National League One side Blackheath, also felt it was the only outcome given the current circumstances.

“The chances of playing proper rugby at our level without Covid testing and without bubbles is impossible,” he said.

“To have a league based on potentially adapted laws and having less scrums and mauls – taking away the power element of the game – I don’t think you could have promotion and relegation.”

There are plans to alter the structure of the rugby pyramid, and with those on hold for another season, Will Cotterill, director of rugby at Shelford, who play in London League 1N, felt the call to cancel the campaign was correct.

“I do, based on the lack of certainty of playing rugby anytime soon, even into the early part of the new year,” he said.

“At best we were looking at getting half a season in.

“Given that and given the fact they have delayed the restructuring of the leagues until the following season, I think it’s probably the right decision.”

As it seemed from a long way out that this would end up being the only logical conclusion for rugby, you have to ask whether the RFU should have been more decisive quicker.

Cotterill believes that the timing was about right, taking into account the data behind the spread of the virus and balancing that with allowing clubs to plan ahead for what happens next.

Williams and Shanahan offer slightly different viewpoints though.

“A part of me thinks that this decision could have been made earlier, and it could have given clubs and teams even more time to plan for post-Christmas around what they can do to keep themselves sustainable and functioning as a club,” said Williams.

“What we’re really hopeful for is that when rugby does return in the new year, is supporters come to watch a game.

“The impact that would have revenue-wise for clubs would be the difference between clubs surviving or ceasing to exist.”

Cambridge University RUFC and Blackheath head coach James Shanahan . Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge University RUFC and Blackheath head coach James Shanahan . Picture: Keith Heppell

This is echoed by Shanahan, who felt that when the RFU announced there would be no full contact rugby until January, the call to cancel the league season could have been made at the same time.

“Hopefully then we would have been looking forward to January with an adapted game, crowds and hopefully something for players, sponsors and supporters to look forward to,” said Shanahan, who added “without crowds, most clubs can’t function financially”.

“I still think they should be allowing youth rugby to be played, at an adapted level, because everyone is back at school, children are intermingling, little social distancing, otherwise the sport is really going to suffer long term.

“You can play football and hockey, and at the moment you are going to be losing the next generation to those sports which I don’t think rugby can afford to do because numbers were dropping before Covid anyway.”

It is what happens next that is the forefront of minds at all rugby clubs.

The governing body has suggested an opt-in regionalised league or cup competition could be run – the return to rugby roadmap is currently at Stage D and for full contact to return it needs to be at Stage F.

A regionalised event could see Cambridge facing the likes of Bishop’s Stortford and Bury St Edmunds, Shelford taking on teams such as Norwich and Colchester, and, a bit further afield, Shanahan’s Blackheath lining up against Old Elthamians and Tonbridge Juddians.

The adapted game mentioned would be modelled on the Women’s Premier 15s, which returned without testing because of the mix of amateur and professional players.

It means there are 35-minute halves and, among other changes, fewer scrums as free-kicks are given for a forward pass and there is no scrum option at a free-kick or penalty.

Whether this will be enough to keep players, supporters – if they are allowed in – and sponsors engaged remains to be seen, but it will at least be a step in the right direction.

“I think now the challenge will be on that localised competition,” said Williams.

“We’ve been very fortunate that a lot of our corporate partners have still invested in the club, and want to have their name associated with Cambridge Rugby Club.

“We have a responsibility as a club with whatever the season is going to look like moving forwards, we’ve still got to promote ourselves and be visible as a club.

“If we can entertain the likes of Bishop’s Stortford and Bury St Edmunds, I think they are really big fixtures that could attract new supporters.”

Shanahan said: “People play because of promotion/relegation and the league campaign, if you are playing just friendlies, will you keep everybody interested?

“Will you keep sponsors? Will you keep supporters? Will you keep players? I really don’t know.

“It’s a really tough time. Rugby will still be around next year and the year after, but at what capacity at the moment? I don’t know.

“My fear is losing the next generation, losing those people who are part-time in the sport – watching a bit of it, playing a bit of it – will they disappear from the sport for good?

“I’m just hoping we can get something back, even if it’s a regional cup competition with different levels to go through, which sounds like it could be quite interesting.

“Even though it’s not rugby as we know it, it’s still a form of rugby and it’s definitely better than touch rugby with no crowds.”

Shelford are in a bit of a different position, playing in London League 1N.

Having already been placed in a conference of seven clubs, they were hoping they may be able to get 12 games out of the season in what would already have been quite a regionalised format.

They are now facing a cluster of six clubs, with matches home and away.

“If we can get 10 games in between March and May, rack up the season that way, start focusing on next season, and hopefully get a full season, that’s not a bad outcome really,” said Cotterill.

“We’ve got a few cold months ahead of us and everyone is going to be watching what the virus does in that time, but hopefully the spring will bring a little bit more cheer.”

Shelford director of rugby and head coach Will Cotterill. Picture: Steven Illingworth (42987883)
Shelford director of rugby and head coach Will Cotterill. Picture: Steven Illingworth (42987883)

Shelford have also been active on the hospitality side of things, running Covid-secure events that fell in line with social distancing guidelines.

The impact of no league rugby is not quite the same as for Cambridge and Blackheath. But it does deprive them of a year of their plan, although they are using it to develop the young squad.

“We’re very aspirational in going back up the leagues, and over a five-year period we’ve earmarked being back in National Two,” added Cotterill.

“Not having the league this year where we potentially could have got a promotion is not the best outcome for us, but I think longer term we will still be in a very good position to push for a couple of promotions over the next four seasons.”

It is understandable that there is a sense of frustration at how long it has taken for the plans – or lack thereof – for the 2020/21 rugby-playing year to take shape, but all involved are extremely mindful of the circumstances.

But you can appreciate the not knowing that was the hardest part, especially as all squads were in place.

The spotlight now falls on making sure that clubs maintain the vital roles they have that are not just focused on the playing side.

“For some rugby clubs, it is a community,” added Shanahan. “It is massive for the community and people buy into that.

“It’s really tough for everyone in rugby, and I know it’s tough around the world full-stop. I know some people can say it’s just a sport, and I understand that, but sport is
very important to a lot of people’s lives, mentally as well as physically.

“That is the key, it’s not as simple as saying it’s just a sport.”

RFU pulls plug on 2020/21 campaign

The plug was finally pulled on the rugby league season by the RFU last Friday.

The RFU Council made the decision to cancel all adult competitive leagues for Level 3 and below for men, and for Level 2 and below for women, as it was felt that even if a return to full contact rugby became possible, playing a full season with promotion and relegation would not be feasible.

It was a call made before the government announced the new national lockdown. There are hopes for a replacement competitive programme based on local clusters, although clubs would have no obligation to take part, and that the optional competition structure may include a knockout competition at the end of the 2020/21 season.

Steve Grainger, RFU rugby development director, said: “We are very keen to see competitive rugby being played again and have been pushing extremely hard to accelerate a return to contact rugby.

“However, we also need to be realistic about the prevalence of Covid-19 cases in society and, given the introduction of further regional restrictions, we are working with government to create alternative solutions.

“Progress has been made following productive conversations with DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) and the office of the deputy chief medical officer who have shown a willingness to work with the RFU to explore other available options. While many people have looked forward to contact rugby returning, we are receiving more and more feedback from clubs and players that adaptations would be acceptable.

“There is an increasing appetite to play an adapted format of rugby rather than having no fixtures at all. We will do everything we can to enable the rugby community to return to contact play as soon as we can, but our priority is to keep players, coaches, referees and volunteers safe. We will provide an update to our community clubs as soon as we can.

“We would like to once again thank everyone for their incredible efforts in implementing the necessary changes and for their continued support in keeping formats of rugby going during this challenging season.”

In a roadmap for the return of rugby, the game is currently at Stage D and needs to get to F.

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