It’s exactly a month to the restart of the Six Nations. Can it really be happening?
On 24 October Scotland are due to welcome France and Ireland entertain Italy. Such are the hopes.
In publicising these plans the Six Nations committee in Dublin must either have sought the backing of all the governments involved or have read their current guidance on the return of sport, and decided to go ahead. A week later comes the only full set of matches:
Wales v Scotland
Italy v England
France v Ireland
That leaves a huge gap till the championship can be concluded. On the weekend of 5 December Scotland travel to Italy to finally catch up with the schedule so painfully cut short back in March. The reason for the delay is that the match serves a twin purpose: it will be a World Cup qualifier too. It’s doubtful if a single international has ever had this double importance before.
But as we take in these dates, they come to look more and more impossibly optimistic. Men’s rugby has been under way for several weeks, though a game between Castres and Leicester had to be called off as three of the French players tested positive for coronavirus.
The pandemic comes and goes. The problem for the 6N is of course its international nature. As with Leicester, it can affect a team clear of the virus. France is currently facing increased limitations on social activities. Parts of the UK are in or close to lockdown again.
The players themselves must be the first people considered. They are working hard to regain the match resilience they had early in the year. It’s a daunting challenge to their fitness regimes. Will they all be happy to play the matches – of course they are impatient to do so, but in safety? Bubbles have become commonplace in recent times as sports teams prepare for a series of matches, but these internationals don’t lend themselves to that safeguard.
Quarantine is another potential obstacle. It has to be totally absent if all the fixtures are to be completed within this time-scale.
So we can only hope and pray that everything turns out for the best. The 6N council may have a Plan B in its locker, though a further postponement is highly unlikely, as we come ever closer to the traditional start of a new series in February 2021.
Meanwhile the pandemic has delayed a solution to the underlying weakness of the Championship, its inequality. Unions short of the funds needed to push the womens’ game forward have been hit by the disaster of unplayed matches and empty terraces. Any monies set aside for that purpose have had to be used for more urgent purposes.
If the RFU is looking at mountainous losses, then the FFR, FIR, IRFU, SRU and WRU will be suffering equally, if not worse. Building a sound programme for the six women’s squads requires funding for a large specialised staff, equipment and more. Bill Sweeney spoke of a five year time-lag before his union could expect a balanced budget. For the Women’s Six Nations it’s likely to mean another sequence of English grand slams – threatened only by France – which risk losing more in value than they have already. That is a huge shame considering the massive efforts put in by all the players themselves and their support staff.
It’s an astonishing 35 weeks since I saw the Red Roses squad training, just before they flew out for that memorable Round 1 game in Pau. Who could ever have guessed that their programme wouldn’t be completed for another 39 weeks at best?