Three of top four nations in world rugby rejig their elite leagues

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Three of the top four nations in world rugby have rejigged their elite leagues

As England awaits the starting signal for the fourth season of the Premier 15s, France and New Zealand have raced ahead with opening rounds this last weekend. Canada is stuck in limbo.

All four authorities will be looking closely at how things work out. The long-term aim is the same: even up standards across the nations’ clubs. Here the prime concern is with the elite levels. In England and France a tiny number of clubs have pulled away from the rest. In New Zealand, where the game is more central to everyday life, there are still unwelcome gaps in attainment between the top two tiers and within them.

The pandemic arrived to put everything on hold. Let’s see how the four countries are shaping their plans.

NEW ZEALAND was the nation least affected by pandemic. In early June the fight against Covid-19 had reached Level 1, so women’s rugby felt it could make an early start.

Method: stick to the well established Farah Palmer Cup. The major restriction applied was a reduction in travel – so clubs from the first and second tiers have met in North and South Conferences with predictable outcomes. The thirteen clubs participating in the Cup: Auckland Storm, Bay of Plenty, Counties Manukau, Canterbury, Hawkes Bay, North Harbour, Northland, Manawatu, Otago, Taranaki, Tasman, Waikato and Wellington.

But lengthy travel is still required. Since there are far fewer elite clubs in South Island, the Southern Conference covers both islands.

Results: only a handful from the first weekend of play. Some disparities in quality are evident:

Auckland Storm 38 Taranaki 0
Counties Manukau 89 North Harbour 3
Waikato 18 Northland 5

Playing strength: all hands on board! That means every Black Fern, 15s and 7s, can compete. It gives them a headstart over every other leading rugby nation, one they hardly need.

FRANCE was badly affected by the pandemic, but has managed to get its women’s rugby under way much sooner than Britain.
Method: The new-look system, outlined here, is one approach to solving the problem of balance. Only the first half of the league schedule will keep its old format, with the upper and lower reaches then splitting off to go their own ways. It means that this opening period risks repeating the sort of one-sided results that caused L’Ovalie Caennaise to relinquish their elite status.

Fortunately in the opening round there were a few close results to set against the drubbings.

Of the clubs recently risen from Elite 2 Lyon and La Valette put in heartening performances, going down by only 12 points to Bayonne and by 14 to Lons respectively. Stade Français in Paris was the club that really pushed the boat out last year, signing up a number of top stars. But the solitary Breton outfit, Stade Rennais, came to town and put them to the sword.

Lille MRCV still haven’t recovered from losing staff and players two years ago. It was their fate to host the perennial champions Montpellier who acquired two of Lille’s greatest treasures, the Ménager twins, when they took up university places in that southern city. The inevitable result: a 81-point shut-out.

Elite 1 First Round 5-6 September
La Valette 0 Lons 14
Lille 0 Montpellier 81
Rouen UC 6 Stade Toulousain 45
Stade Français 0 Stade Rennais 68
Blagnac 55 Chilly Mazarin 0
Lyon 3 Bayonne 15
Bobigny 3 Romagnat 16
Grenoble Stade Bordelais – result not in

Playing strength: players are still switching between 15s and 7s. They are separating off more now, but not permanently. For example Romane Ménager will surely be back in the national 15s XV for the World Cup. She remains an exception to the rule – very French.

CANADA Because the season runs from May to November, rugby has come to a complete halt. As a result no fewer than twenty Quebec players have crossed the Atlantic to join French clubs. The original intention had been to tour the Auvergne and play Clermont and Vichy, but the pandemic put a stop to that. This alternative will prove far more beneficial. The Canadians will benefit from a semi-pro existence with accommodation and other facilities laid on. It will also benefit the French clubs who have been in Elite 2 and now find themselves face to face with the leaders of the pack.

The big worry in Canada is that an entire season will remain unplayed, a fate that the other three nations have been spared.

ENGLAND was seriously affected by the coronavirus; rugby is taking a slow, step-by-step return to normality. The Premier 15s has altered shape.

Method: a gradual move towards (semi)-professionalism. That means basing more top-tier clubs on men’s Premiership clubs (Bristol, Exeter, Gloucester-Hartpury, Quins, Sale, Saracens, Wasps and Worcester) – though the degree of co-operation between the two varies hugely.

The total number of elite club players has been reduced by a third. This policy works on the assumption that a smaller catchment raises standards and helps the Red Rose cause. Equally, that the second tier (the Championship) will benefit from players arriving from last year’s Prem 15s. But they will not have the support they have grown used to. The likely outcome is that the gap between the first and second tier will widen, not narrow.

Only the new links between Prem 15s and Championship clubs – for example Glos-Pury and Cheltenham, and Worcester Warriors and Worcester RFC – will work against this trend.

No date yet for the restart of club competitions. Players have just moved to Stage 2 of the return to active service. Red Roses are in training for the autumn internationals – they are less than 50 days away – but peak fitness is yet to be reached.

Playing strength: the plan would have been to continue as before, allowing the contracted players to turn out for their clubs in every round of the Prem 15s. But with the distortions to the scheduling this may prove impossible over the coming months.