COVID has been dominating everyone’s lives. And it has begun to disrupt the Gallagher Premiership.
However, there is hope that 2021 could be the year that redeems the disaster that 2020 was for many. Talk of vaccinations is giving a glimmer of hope for crowds in the stands and no more disruption. However, 2021 is only just starting and COVID is definitely still causing havoc on the league.
What could further COVID disruption do to the Gallagher Premiership?
There have been numerous postponements caused by positive outbreaks at various clubs over the last five rounds, with round six no different. Unfortunately, this week, the Northampton vs Leicester Tigers fixture canceled. The European competitions are being plunged into similar doubt and with international fixtures around the corner too.
Further disruption is likely too, for the players, stakeholders, and fans.
COVID cancellation points
The methodology of the points being attributed to teams that face cancellations has been rife with debate. The team who have unmanageable levels of COVID positive players and staff, are awarded two points, with the opposing team getting four. This is allowing clubs to accrue substantial points without picking up a ball.
Clubs are picking up points without picking up a ball. Is this unjustified?
Raising the question around what happens when a side faces relegation. Punishment for teams with no cancellations getting no points if they lose. Whereas, in matches where other relegation battlers could have repeated COVID impacted fixtures. They would be gathering two or four points regardless. Unless all clubs have the same number of fixtures canceled, it won’t be possible to declare the season as a fair one. Does it beg the question of, what could further COVID disruption do the Gallagher Premiership?
Is two points too much for a club that is the cause behind the cancellation?
Towards the end of last season, there was havoc when Sale Sharks faced little consequence for the final fixture of the season being canceled. However, is it right for a club to be punished for having players come down with an illness that is sweeping across the nation? It would be incredibly difficult and unfair to change anything mid-season. It is unlikely for that to change, although what else might happen to change the policy?
What other options are there?
There are two potential avenues that could be explored if COVID cases within rugby continue to rise. This would then bring about the frequent debate around ringfencing. Alternatively, should the season as a whole, be stopped, restarted or scrapped altogether? In what is an unfair season, can a club proudly declare themselves champions in a season so heavily impacted by non-rugby issues.
Ringfencing in the Gallagher Premiership:
In the circumstance of ringfencing, the massive elephant in the room would be Saracens and what to do with them. They are a member club of Premiership Rugby and will have a say on the future of the league. It would be unlikely that they would vote for ringfencing. It would confine their destiny to being within the championship for the short term future. However, there are also the likes of Ealing Trailfinders and Cornish Pirates, showing huge ambition in the Championship, who won’t want the door shut on them.
The prospect of ring-fencing will need to be thoroughly thought through. There will be a need to consider both the short and long term implications of any change like this.
Stopping the league altogether:
Unfairness and the inevitably skewed league table at the end of the season will be avoided. There is also an opportunity to re-align with the Championship when it commences in March. Avoiding a very real issue of being completely unaligned with the Premiership.
The unknown of how promotion and relegation will work with this lack of alignment. The league hasn’t thought that far ahead as of yet and canceling the league presents an opportunity to buy more time. Potentially even solve it before it is even a problem.
Consider maybe a bit of both:
Taking on both ideas at the same time is also an option. Canceling the season and ringfencing to provide stability for an agreed period of time. There could be an invitation to bring Saracens and Ealing Trailfinders into the competition with relegation canceled for two or three seasons. Allowing Cornish Pirates to establish and build their new stadium in Truro and then being to challenge for a spot in the now 14 team Premiership.
Yes, there are obvious fixture issues to correct with an increased competition size, but for now, we are looking at how we can adapt to our COVID impacted world.
In reality, no one knows what further COVID disruption could do to the Gallagher Premiership. If cases continue to spiral out of control, the league will have its hands forced. Darren Childs, CEO of Premiership Rugby, has been muted on the topic.
Does this present ‘opportunity’ in the face of adversity
There are potential opportunities in these scenarios of further COVID disruption. Increased league size, becoming aligned with the World rugby calendar, and reducing the chance of teams beginning to infect each other by pausing the contact opportunities. Do they outweigh the negatives of continuing the competition?
Much to digest, a lot to consider. While all efforts to get the sport up and running are not necessarily out the window, what could it mean for player contracts and the international rugby calendar?
In round six, and only a quarter of the way through this season, there is still plenty to ponder.
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