World rugby will get its integrated season after the next World Cup. Super Rugby will shift to a March start and won’t break for test matches, the June window will be shifted to July and all players will have a 14 to 16-week off-season.
Gregor Paul – Herald on Sunday
Other innovative plans are being discussed, such as building a world series of tests in years that fall between the World Cup and British Lions tours. The revolution that All Black coach Steve Hansen called for last week is coming.
The players have intimated they are prepared to strike if they don’t get what they want. They have made the creation of an integrated season a priority and with domestic player associations working in conjunction with the International Rugby Players’ Association, they present an irresistible force.
The IRPA has been working for the past 18 months on changes they feel have to be made to protect individuals from physical and mental burnout. Players in all the major nations are willing to work together to enforce a shorter season that doesn’t expose them to such high injury risks and may potentially increase their longevity in the game.
It is understood the English, French and Celtic leagues are willing to push out the start of their respective competitions from August to September to allow the June tests to be pushed back to July. That will pave the way for Super Rugby to begin later in the year, shifting from its current mid-February position to early March.
Last year was the first time in its 17-year history that Super Rugby had to stop to accommodate the test programme. The hiatus was problematic on many fronts – it led to a drop in fan interest, but of more concern was the demands it placed on the players.
Many of the Chiefs and Crusaders – they made the playoffs – struggled with the intensity of playing crucial Super Rugby games as well as three tests in such a condensed period.
The problem was just as acute for those not involved in the tests. Some teams, because of the bye, had a four-week gap without games which they struggled to use constructively. It was too long to go without a game, yet finding opposition was hard. The Hurricanes suffered the extra punishment of losing star halfback TJ Perenara to serious injury in a game against the Reds.
The immediate feedback from last year was that the players didn’t like the competition being put on hold and changing that is one of the key priorities.
Sanzar’s broadcasting deal for Super Rugby expires in 2015, which means there is an opportunity to restructure the competition into the proposed timeframes.
While there are ambitious plans to include new geographic areas post-2015, any new format won’t be signed off by the players unless it can be completed in full without a break.
Nor will the players agree to an increase in the number of games they are required to play. The current format comes with a minimum of 16 and a maximum of 19 matches. Those numbers are at the upper limits of what the players want; they would rather play fewer, more intense games.
A limit is not being set but everyone working on the new season structure agrees that, ideally, 30 games split between Super Rugby and tests is the maximum individuals should be asked to play.
Previous attempts to integrate the Northern and Southern Hemisphere seasons have failed because of self-interest, a determination to preserve tradition and the difficulties involved in breaking longer term broadcasting and sponsorship agreements.
The so-called Woking lock-in after the 2007 World Cup was deemed the definitive attempt to make significant changes but when no agreements could be reached on how the seasons in both hemispheres could be reconfigured to make them shorter and more logical, the IRB declared the creation of a global season impossible.
The major difference this time is the alignment of the respective player unions and their willingness to work together. The timing is also favourable as unlike the last attempt to make change, most of the key commercial agreements in place will be expiring in 2015.
By collaborating, the players will effectively reduce the IRB and other national unions to bit-part players. The IRPA plans to hold a major conference next month in Australia, where it will unveil more detail of its plan.
How the new season could look
• Mid-March: Super Rugby starts. Competition to be played in one continuous block in what could be a 16 to 18-week window, finishing in late June.
• July: Three tests hosted in Southern Hemisphere. In 2016 and 2018, these could be part of a world series that will be continued in November and linked to World Cup seedings. Each nation could be free to determine their schedule rather than have it imposed by the IRB. This paves the way for Tier Two nations to play more tests against Tier One nations.
• Late August: Rugby Championship begins and runs to mid-October in current four team, home and away format. ITMCup also begins early to mid-August, running through to late October.
• November: Southern Hemisphere sides play tests in the north, either as one-off tests are as part of a world series.
• December-early March: The All Blacks will be given almost 14 weeks to rest and recondition before joining their respective franchises.