NOTHING is set in stone this season, but the Six Nations organisers appear to have persuaded a sceptical French government that the Senior Men’s competition can kick-off as scheduled in just under four weeks’ time, despite the escalating second wave and increased transmission risk of the new strain of coronavirus.
Yesterday’s news was not so encouraging for the Senior Women’s and Men’s Under-20s tournaments, which have both now been pushed back until later in the year.
Details of when the two postponed competitions will take place will be announced at the end of January, following consultation with the unions involved, broadcast partners and other stakeholders. It is hoped that the games will be played “later this spring or early summer”.
“We are fiercely committed to the promotion and development of rugby at all levels, particularly the women’s game where we see such exciting opportunity for growth,” insisted Ben Morel, CEO of Six Nations Rugby Limited.
“This is not a decision that we rushed into and we are confident that in looking at a new later window, we will be in a far stronger position to deliver two fantastic tournaments, delivering exciting rugby for fans, and ensuring the safest possible environment in which to stage them for our players.”
The logic behind suspending both these tournaments is solid. Not all of the players who would be involved are full-time professionals so creating team bubbles to minimise the threat of Covid is much more problematic. However, the impact of this decision could be highly detrimental to the player development in both the women’s and men’s games.
The Under-20s programme is a particularly vital component in the elite player development pathway in this country given that there are only two pro teams and no ‘A’ team schedule. It was hoped that Super6 would provide the platform for developing talent to get valuable game-time at an appropriate standard, but that new “part-time professional” league has not returned since being closed down midway through its first season back in March, meaning that a generation of the nation’s most talented youngsters in the 18 to 20 age-bracket are facing almost a year and a half with no meaningful rugby at that crucial point in their careers when they should be transitioning into the adult game.
Meanwhile, the slow but steady progress the women’s team had made in recent years is in danger of flatlining as a consequence of this situation. They only managed two games in the 2020 Six Nations before lockdown, then achieved an excellent draw against mighty France when restrictions eased back in October, before the remainder of that championship was cancelled.
They had also expected to play in the European qualification tournament for Rugby World Cup 2021 in mid-December but that was also postponed, leaving Bryan Easson’s team stuck in state of agonising limbo.
In many respects, this is a golden generation for women’s rugby in Scotland, with players such as Jade Konkel, Rachel Malcolm, Chloe Rollie and Lisa Thomson showing the ability and aptitude to not only get the national team back to a World Cup for the first time since 2010, but to also inspire the next generation of girls coming through. They really do deserve a run of games to see if they can reach their potential.
The writing appeared to be on the wall for the men’s championship, too, after the French government’s concerns about cross-border competition led directly to the suspension of the European Champions and Challenge Cups on Monday.
Then, on Tuesday, French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu demanded guarantees from the UK and Ireland governments about their Covid-19 containment plans before giving the Six Nations the green light.
“We keep the first match (against Italy),” she said. “On the other hand, against Ireland and England we absolutely need to have the necessary guarantees from these countries. There has to be proof that the other nations’ virus framework respects the same requirements in terms of precaution. We expect the same thing from the other teams.”
Now, emergency talks seem to have reassured French authorities for the time being, but there is still almost a month to go until kick-off and we know from painful experience that the outlook can change dramatically and quickly when coping with the challenges posed by Covid.
“Whilst closely monitoring the situation, Six Nations Rugby also confirms plans to stage the men’s Guinness Six Nations Championship remain as scheduled,” said a statement issued by the tournament organisers.
“Following the successful completion of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup, Six Nations Rugby is in constant dialogue with each of its governmental authorities and is further reinforcing its Covid-19 protocols.
“The Championship kicks off with Round 1 fixtures on the 6th February with Italy v France, followed by England v Scotland, and Wales v Ireland on February 7th.”
Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s PRO14 clash against Zebre has been moved forward to Saturday, January 23, with a 1pm kick-off time. It will fill the gap in the capital club’s schedule created earlier this week by the decision to postpone the European Champions Cup.
As it stands, Glasgow Warriors will have that weekend off, although head coach Danny Wilson has expressed his desire to have a match moved into the slot, so as to get as many games as possible played before his leading players disappear off on Six Nations duty.