It is hard to pinpoint what 2020 will come to be known for in rugby union. The toughest 12 months that the sport has experienced saw the chickens come home to roost and a pandemic bringing the sport to its knees by wrecking the professional schedule and pretty much wiping out the amateur game.
What will rugby look like in 10 years’ time? It’s a question that has been asked at the end of every year for the last decade as the sport has wrangled with itself over how it can become more appealing on a wider scale. But this year, as 2021 approaches, it is a question that represents something very different. Perhaps the question we should actually be asking now is: will rugby as we know it still exist in 10 years’ time?
Unlike most other sports this year, rugby’s biggest problems have been self-inflicted. The coronavirus pandemic has certainly altered the lives of many, with several jobs lost, salaries reduced and clubs closed down. But as the year draws to a close, ‘pandemic’ is no longer the word on everyone’s lips. Instead, it is ‘concussion’.
This is because of the lawsuit launched by Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson, former England teammate Michael Lipman, ex-Wales international Alix Popham and six others. Their hope to not only hold World Rugby and their respective national governing bodies to account for careers filled with head traumas and negligence over concussion, but to also leave a safer sport behind them so that future players don’t experience what they have.
What looked to be a year of England rebuilding after a World Cup near-miss instead ended with the revelation that 42-year-old Thompson cannot remember the 2003 final he himself played in. The Rugby Football Union, Welsh Rugby Union and World Rugby, upon receiving a letter of claim from solicitors representing the players, will spend much of the next year – and possibly more – deciding how best to defend themselves while simultaneously trying to make the sport even safer than it currently is. It will be messy, it will be shocking and it will not paint the sport in the light that it desperately needs to bounce back from the effects of the pandemic.
The stories off the field have certainly dominated the ones on it this year, so it may come as a surprise to read that England’s convincing defeat by France actually happened in 2020. It is barely believable that fewer than 12 months ago, questions were being asked of Eddie Jones and whether he had enough juice in the tank to go again, with a surprise defeat in the Six Nations opener coming quick off the heels of their humbling Rugby World Cup defeat by the Springboks.
As the year draws to a close, those questions have evaporated and Jones could not look much stronger following a season of English domination. England ended up beating the French to the Six Nations title before winning the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup – again at the expense of Fabien Galthie’s side – while Exeter Chiefs reigned supreme both at home and on the continent with their Premiership and Champions Cup double. With Wales on the ropes, Ireland in transition and Scotland ever flattering to deceive, a new era of Anglo-French rivalry is well and truly on the cards.
However, It is hard to know exactly how much can be extracted from the 2020 international calendar given the effects of the pandemic. The individual worth of this year’s Tests was significantly reduced with World Rugby’s decision to adjust their regulations regarding the draw for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. 2020 was due to play a significant part in determining the seedings for the pool stage draw, but the postponement and cancellation of games, tours and tournaments would have resulted in a completely skewed process.
World Rugby elected to backdate the cut-off for seedings to the start of the year, allowing the four 2019 semi-finalists to fill the top band and hand Wales a significantly easier draw than they could have faced had their nightmare 2020 been taken into account. Alas, the dangling carrot for 2020 was removed, and so too was much of the quality rugby that 2019 produced.
That said, there was still enough to take out of the last 12 months to warm the soul ahead of 2021. The rejuvenation of French rugby is something to relish ahead of a home World Cup, with only disciplinary issues and a club vs country row costing Les Bleus what looked a likely Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup double. Further south, Argentina’s performances in the Tri-Nations suggests the Pumas may be onto a resurgence of their own – a first ever victory over New Zealand is always something to shout about. Having numerous teams playing at the top of their game outside of the regular four or five faces is imperative for growing the global game – the end goal that rugby so often flutters its eyelashes at.
Club-wise, Saracens’ demise was Exeter’s gain as the Chiefs established themselves as the new dominant force in European rugby. With not only an English core but a Devonian one promoting the very best of south-west rugby, Exeter have been the ultimate fairy-tale story, rising from the ranks of the lower tiers to cement their place among the very best. Sadly, the fact that it comes at a time when Premiership ringfencing is edging towards a foregone conclusion is not only a huge disappointment but a travesty for those outside of the professional game.
When the inevitable withdrawal comes though, it will not be as disappointing as the sport’s response to the fight for racial equality. There are very few examples when it comes to morality where football shows rugby the way forward, yet the response to the Black Lives Matter movement within the sport was a borderline disgrace. As the Premier League took the knee as one to show no player’s skin colour made any difference to another’s, rugby produced a confused message with teams left to their own devices to come up with their anti-racism gesture. What formations of hearts and circles and V’s has to do with fighting centuries of racial injustice remains a mystery, though full credit must go to Harlequins, Leicester Tigers and Wasps for their understanding of what the words Black lives Matter actually means and cutting out the rubbish to send a clear and respected message.
That failure to lead by example filtered throughout the game, as some fans railed against the RFU’s decision to review its use of ‘Swing Low’ as its official anthem – a part of the governing body’s review of its diversity and inclusion programme. The image of some players kneeling while others stood, as certain fans sing a former slave anthem while others fall silent, is not one the sport should be proud of.
And what of Saracens? The fallout of their scandalous salary cap infringements may not yet be over despite their automatic relegation to the Championship, with the return of their loanees far from a guarantee after England hooker Jack Singleton made his move to Gloucester unexpectedly permanent. With the new Championship season pushed back until March, it will be some time before we see the once dominant force of English rugby back in action, although when they inevitably return to the big time, you can stake good money on it being as part of a protected league, safe from the financially catastrophic threat of relegation.
All things considered, English rugby does need Saracens at the top of their game to provide the two-team rivalry that draws eyes to the sport. Having one club flex its superiority in the way that both Saracens and Exeter have been able to individually achieve helps no one, but when they do so together – as we saw in 2019 – rugby union becomes a gripping and inspiring sport that few others can rival for entertainment factor.
That is essentially the problem with 2020. On its own, it was a year that brought wrecked the sport in three different ways: financially, morally and competitively. But pinned against the backdrop of everything that 2019 achieved to paint the sport in such a good light, it’s hard to argue that 2020 will be remembered as one of the most disappointing year’s in rugby memory.
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