Source: INPHO

2020 – What a Year that was – What about 2021?

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Across a span of 287 days I attended two rugby matches.

The first was the England-Wales international at Twickenham Stoop on 7 March. It wasn’t just hypochondriacs who wondered if they should be there in a crowd of over 10,000. The pandemic was beginning to take a grip. Other fixtures were called off.

The second was near the year’s end, an Allianz Premier 15s game between Wasps and Gloucester-Hartpury. As I wandered up to the top end of the ground I wondered if I was the only spectator present. No, a handful of others did arrive, but the emptiness of the surroundings added a special savour to a great club match.

The question that has haunted me from that early date to the year’s end is: should any rugby have been played over that long period?

Here’s one simple response: none of the players involved would have taken part if they felt uncomfortable at the thought of exposing themselves to this new health hazard. But there were people in positions of responsibility who were troubled by the decision to restart before proper safeguards were in place.

Of course rugby has been limited to the elite level. Everyone else has had to accept a period of inactivity that threatens to stretch some distance into the new year.

We have only to look at the increasing number of matches being called off in the Premiership and the Premier 15s to see the risks being run.

The RFU introduced law amendments to reduce the amount of human contact, But this was a Canute-like attempt to turn the tide. If scrums were perceived as a likely source of contamination, why were they permitted at all? And the tackles, rucks and mauls went ahead with a furious intensity.

The Six Nations

The famous championship brought frustration to all concerned, especially the players. It even finished bizarrely with England declared the winners of an incomplete campaign.
There was plenty of high-class rugby on show, but the Grand Slammers’ final lead over second-placed France – 14 points – was disturbingly wide, even with the benefit of an extra game.

For me the great moment of the tournament was Scotland’s Helen Nelson’s third successful kick, from the right-hand edge, to ensure a draw with France.

A blinkered look ahead

England’s response to Covid-19 has stood in stark contrast to other nations’. In the rest of the British Isles women’s rugby has been reduced to a bare minimum. On the continent there is no women’s club rugby in France or Italy.

Does that explain why there has been no mention of a 2021 Six Nations schedule for women yet? The men’s version is known to all.

Yet the only reference to the women’s version on the 6N website is the cryptic message ‘Eyes on the Prize’.

The committee has still not published any recommendations for adjustments. One simple and necessary change would be to disconnect the sequencing of the two tournaments.

There is absolutely no need for Wales versus Italy to happen in both forms on the same weekend. Nor should the timings be arranged to give the men’s game prime-time exposure to the disadvantage of the women’s.

Two games should not take place concurrently. This has happened at the World Cup too; it is a grave discourtesy to supporters as well as the players themselves. It would be a pleasure to see matches set on Saturdays, not Sundays. This surely would benefit the majority of players who are amateurs with a job to return to.

Scotland and Wales both have a new Head Coach, Bryan Easson and Warren Abrahams. They pick up the reins in the trickiest of conditions, with players able to meet up only with difficulty and training sessions limited in scope. We wish them both success in their endeavours. It’s vitally important that all fifteen games are closely contested.

As Covid-19 reasserts its presence, we may meet the same frustrations as last season.

Italy

Andrea Di Giandomenico has announced a squad of 24 players for a three-day meet in Parma starting on 27 December:

Ilaria Arrighetti (Stade Rennais, 45 caps)
Sara Barattin (Arredissima Villorba, 95 caps)
Melissa Bettoni (Stade Rennais, 58 caps)
Giulia Cavina (CUS Milan, uncapped)
Micol Cavina (Arredissima Villorba, 3 caps)
Giordana Duca (Valsugana, 18 caps)
Valeria Fedrighi (Stade Toulousain, 22 caps)
Giada Franco (Colorno, 17 caps)
Lucia Gai (Valsugana, 70 caps)
Isabella Locatelli (Monza, 23 caps)
Veronica Madia (Colorno, 19 caps)
Maria Magatti (CUS Milano, 33 caps)
Michela Merlo (Kawasaki R. Calvisano, 5 caps)
Aura Muzzo (Arredissima Villorba, 13 caps)
Vittoria Ostuni Minuzzi (Valsugana, 4 caps)
Laura Paganini (CUS Milano, 3 caps)
Beatrice Rigoni (Valsugana, 43 caps)
Francesca Sberna (Kawasaki Robot Calvisano, 6 caps)
Francesca Sgorbini (Romagnat, 5 caps)
Michela Sillari (Valsugana, 57 caps)
Erika Skofca (Valsugana, 2 caps)
Sofia Stefan (Valsugana, 56 caps)
Silvia Turani (Grenoble, 16 caps)
Beatrice Veronese (Valsugana, 4 caps)

Six other uncapped players are also attending:

Natasha Aggio (Valsugana)
Alyssa D’Inca (Arredissima Villorba)
Francesca Granzotto (Arredissima Villorba)
Gaia Maris (Valsugana)
Sofia Rolfi (Colorno)
Sara Seye (Kawasaki Robot Calvisano)

The sharp-eyed will have spotted the same name appearing twice. Yes, it is yet another pair of twins.

Another session will take place in January to refine a 6N squad.

The FIR have decided to use the Plebisicito Stadium in Padua for all three home matches, against France, Ireland and Wales. This marks a change of policy similar to Scotland’s. For 2021 the Azzurre will have a firm base where they can hope to build a bigger following, just as the Scots did when they limited themselves to Scotstoun. They immediately set a new attendance record.

England

The Red Roses will somehow have to make do without Katy Daley-Mclean, but they have compensating advantages. It is their turn to have three home games, including the decisive crunch with France.

I have not bothered to keep a ‘Rosewatch’ over recent weeks, as the nearest international fixtures seemed a long way off. But as the pre-Christmas schedule ended, the list of long and short-term absentees was worrying: Amber Reed, Bryony Cleall, Cath O’Donnell, Hannah Botterman, Lydia Thompson, Sarah Bern. Vicky Fleetwood and Zoe Aldcroft.

Shaunagh Brown won’t be allowed to play again till the end of January which brings her very close to the first round of the 6N.

The management will no doubt have carefully drawn up plans to ensure they can see the squad operating in various combinations. They have to work on the basis that all the five fixtures will take place. Then that a goodly number of tests can be added around the world in the run-up to the RWC.

The Premier 15s have served their purpose admirably: to show the England selectors the high standards being reached up and down the land. It will be fascinating to see whether any uncapped player can achieve the near impossible, to break through into a national squad that is already bursting at the seams with talent.

One missing ingredient is the Under 20s. It was decided eighteen months ago that they wouldn’t be contesting at international level till the summer of 2020. Those plans had to be set aside. But the selectors have again picked out a teenager worthy of vaulting the U20s for a full England cap. Morwenna Talling followed in Ellie Kildunne’s footsteps in achieving this honour.

The doubts about the future of the World Series Sevens programme adds a sharp edge to their arrangements. A squad including Abbie Brown, Abi Burton, Alex Matthews, Ellie Kildunne, Helena Rowland and Meg Jones would look and feel very different from one lacking their contribution.

It’s a relief to hear Jasmine Joyce say she hopes to take part in both the Olympics and the RWC. Whether all the English players are of the same mind is uncertain.

The World Cup

Here are some not entirely light-hearted predictions of options for future outcomes:

It will take place as planned. OR
It will be delayed a year. OR
It will take place minus the teams that have not been able to complete qualifying. OR
Nations having to qualify will meet in one location to dispute the pay-offs. OR
It will be reduced to a single match, between New Zealand and England. OR
World Rugby and the RWC 2021 committee agree to establish a new schedule: all qualifying nations to be allowed to take part with extra rounds preceding the advertised timetable.

Footnote

Warmest congratulations to Kendra Cocksedge who has just been awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Pictured above trying to evade England tackles Scotland’s – Helen Nelson

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