It’s exactly a year to the 2021 World Cup in North Island, New Zealand – Facing up to unpleasant facts
A year before the big day, Cate Sexton, head of NZ Women’s rugby development, has used the word ‘nerve-wracking’. And with justice. So much remains in doubt about its successful conclusion. The news that players may be asked to isolate pre-tournament adds to the drama and uncertainty.
The statement is limited to the tournament (the RWC) itself and its immediate prelude. The positive news includes a determination to spread awareness and acceptance of women’s rugby and, more immediately, the accommodation. No more university campuses but 4-star hotels! That is a huge step forward.
Another very positive adjustment: the opening match will be staged at Eden Park. Previous arrangements saw it being used only in the final stages. This will help to give the tournament a really big send-off.
All these matters are now in the hands of Michelle Hooper, a woman of vast experience in the field, having dealt with major sports events that suffered earthquakes and typhoons. Her latest commission is likely to prove even more challenging than them.
World Rugby has relieved worries about the costs; it has undertaken the task of funding the competing teams. Now those costs have been extended by the need for isolation. It means too that the vast majority of the players who are amateur may somehow have to manage an even longer absence from work. We’ve already seen examples of players unable to take time off in the 6 Nations (England v Italy at Exeter). Extend that to the world stage, and the strains become plain.
What remains unmentioned in the update is the massive backlog in qualifying. Only nine of the twelve teams are already confirmed.
In Europe women’s club rugby has taken place in France and one or two other countries, especially Scandinavia. But there are still no confirmed dates for opening combat elsewhere. It’s inevitable that players’ fitness for a return to full-blown rugby will vary widely. It’s two months to the RWC qualifying fixtures for European nations. We can only hope that the predicted spike in coronavirus cases towards winter doesn’t materialise.
Each day we hear news of the rise and fall in its spread and governments’ reaction to the emergency. In England a current return to lockdown in the north-east will affect one elite club in the Premier 15s, Darlington Mowden Park. If further lockdowns are found necessary, that could extend the delay to a restart.
The draw for the RWC is due in two months’ time, 20 November. It will be full of either-ors, as so many matches remain unplayed. A month later the match schedule will be published. What are the chances of it being complete?
At the risk of repeating a point for the fourth or fifth time – when can the Colombia-Kenya match possibly take place? Even a date like next January or February looks like unparalleled optimism. So next spring and summer are likely to be packed with matches held over from long ago. And if one or two of them don’t come to pass – what then?
Would the tournament go ahead with gaps in the fixture-list? Would qualifying matches be decided on the toss of an online coin?
The simplest answer is the least palatable: postpone the enterprise.