Cardiff in August was a sight to behold. Walking along St Mary’s Street en route to the Millennium Stadium the city was soaked in sunshine and it prompted the blue-sky thinker within to wonder about the concept of a summer Six Nations.
The photos from Ireland’s World Cup warm-up game with Wales that weekend should have made the argument for us, but the meticulous nature of Joe Schmidt meant that on one of the most glorious days of the year in Wales the roof on the Millenium Stadium would remain shut.
Ahead of the game Warran Gatland, the Wales coach, gently teased Schmidt, saying: “Well, it’s a bit ironic that you wanted it open during the Six Nations and now you want it closed.”
Despite the 21-degree temperature on game day, Schmidt’s request was founded on the theory that because World Rugby would insist on the roof being closed during the World Cup, his players should have a rehearsal environment that matched battle-time conditions.
That’s Schmidt for you, he will survey the landscape and his resources and formulate the most straight-forward plan to achieve success and despite Ireland’s failure in the World Cup, it’s hard to argue with his record or his methods.
But what if Schmidt and his Six Nations coaching counterparts were plunged into summer-time competition that might even include bonus points?
That would tilt the old championship on its axis and encourage coaches and players to embrace an adventurous attitude that would serve them better when facing the southern-hemisphere teams in the World Cup.
This weekend Six Nations games take place in Edinburgh and Dublin where rain is expected and temperatures will be lucky to rise above seven or eight degrees while France will host Italy in Paris where it will be dry but not very warm.
What type of game do poor weather and no bonus points give us? One based on steel-curtain defences and kick and chase, not exactly thrilling.
It’s producing dour spectacles that have little emphasis on exciting skills.
Although it would be naïve to suggest a summer tournament held between May and June would be free from rain, it would be warmer for a start and clearly the chances of attacking rugby would increase with harder pitches and the likelihood of sunnier afternoons.
Such a move could form part of a solution to finally unify the global rugby calendar, which is placing serious burdens on players and holding back the expansion of the game.
So what is the solution? One framework would see a global season kick off in January and end in late November, one that would encompass club and Test blocks that would allow the European club and Super Rugby competitions to run side by side while the Six Nations and Rugby Championships could do likewise.
There’s also a hidden bonus to excite rugby supporters the world over: instead of Test windows that see the traditional north v south games take place in each hemisphere’s winter, they would now be played in each other’s summer time.
And instead of three separated Test windows there would now be two more concentrated blocks of international rugby that would provide teams with more time to build their form.
It would be impossible to implement such a schedule overnight, but a global rugby season in 2020 could work like this: At international level the Six Nations plays out in seven weeks and the Rugby Championship in eight, so it’s quite simple to run them concurrently between May and June before the southern-hemisphere sides conduct their European tours in July.
This block would be sandwiched into the middle of the club season which would begin in January and end in October before the European sides tour the southern hemisphere in November where conditions will encourage more flair rugby.
What’s key is to massage two blocks of the club season around international rugby, to ensure the Test game remains rugby’s elite product.
Under its current guise, the Super Rugby season requires 20 weeks while in Europe the PRO12 and Premiership require 24 weeks and the Champions Cup needs nine, which brings us to a total of 33 fixture rounds.
The disparity between the club calendars works out when you consider that second-tier club competitions down south, such as New Zealand’s National Provincial Cup and South Africa’s Currie Cup, take 12 weeks to run.
The only outlier of course is France, who need 29 rounds to run off the Top 14 but they have always ploughed on through the Six Nations regardless.
In block one of the club season in Europe, we would have 12 league rounds between the PRO12, Premiership and Top 14 and all six rounds of the European pool stages would be played out.
Between the down weeks of the May to July Test window there is space for an additional four domestic rounds while the Top 14 would, presumably, play straight through.
Then from August to mid October the leagues, European and Super Rugby competitions are played out in a familiar fashion with the Champions Cup final — and the Super Rugby final down south — ending the club calendar.
Such a schedule would also provide enough flexibility to condense the club season and remove the November tour games to make room in years where the World Cup is on or when the Lions are touring.
Imagine, a rugby world where everything is simple and the best weather is saved for the elite level of the game?
Schmidt would definitely approve of that and his teams would get the heart racing once again.
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