A change is gonna come
Graham Jenkins
July 11, 2013
New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, Scotland v New Zealand, Murrayfield, Edinburgh, Scotland, November 11, 2012
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw has thrown his support behind the proposal to shake up the global calendar © PA Photos

The players have clearly had enough. There was no mention of the word 'strike' in the press release announcing the International Rugby Players' Association's proposal for a shake-up to the rugby calendar but you sense if the sport's stakeholders do not play ball then they may well take drastic action.

IRPA's global season proposal

  • Northern hemisphere domestic season October-June
  • November internationals and Six Nations unchanged
  • June international window moves to July
  • Super Rugby season February-June
  • Rugby Championship August-October window

Sick of the near-constant demands of the modern game and perhaps not convinced by the efforts of a governing body committed to player welfare but seemingly unable to ease the burden, they have tabled an idea that appears both workable and crucially has already attracted the support of key figures in the sport in the form of Premiership Rugby and SANZAR.

The major change proposed does not appear that significant but could have huge - positive - repercussions. The IRPA's plan revolves around the shifting of the June international window to the following month - beginning in 2016 - which in turn would see the northern hemisphere domestic season delayed until October and running through until June.

The Six Nations would remain rooted in February-March so preserving its high-profile and commercially lucrative spot in the calendar - it would be easier to move the British Isles themselves - while the Rugby Championship would also continue to run from August-October. Any plan hoping to align these competitions would require unprecedented riches and concessions and is not necessarily desirable given that it would pitch two of the sport's key properties against each other.

The Rugby Championship would feed into the end of year internationals after which the southern hemisphere players would be afforded the chance to kick back until the start of the Super Rugby season in February with that battle scheduled to run uninterrupted until June.

On paper, the plan appears to offer clear and significant downtime for all the leading players - with Europe's best given August and September off - and does not impact on the TV and commercial deals that continue to drive the game.

The proposed structure would also see the World Cup remain in its September-October slot every four years and therefore demand a truncated Rugby Championship in that part of the cycle. But SANZAR's fears over such a scenario - that prompted threats of a boycott of the next World Cup -have long since been allayed by a promise of a larger piece of the financial pie.

"The players' united voice is certainly powerful enough to "open the minds" of those with the power to trigger change while the latent threat of a strike should be enough to prompt change."

The alignment of the respective domestic seasons also allows for a potentially money-spinning world club championship between the Heineken Cup and Super Rugby champions but do not expect any public commitment to such a fixture anytime in the near future - player welfare must drive this change.

Despite the positive reaction from some, it remains a complex topic with many issues and interests to be addressed including the British & Irish Lions' desire for more time to prepare for their next tour to New Zealand in 2017. As recently as last month IRB chief executive Brett Gosper stressed the many hurdles that lie in their way and openly admitted that there didn't "seem to be a lot of heart for people to get into a room and talk about it."

The IRPA are keen to stress that their proposal enables more of the northern hemisphere season "to be played after the Christmas break" when it is suggested better weather allows for more attractive rugby but it does nothing to alleviate the demands on those players asked to deliver week in, week out on the European stage.

We are led to believe that the proposal provides 'more breathing space' for the northern hemisphere's respective finals but as this proposal simply shifts the season and does not extend the span of the campaign it remains unclear where they can come up for air.

The Lions injected fresh life into arguably the sport's most engaging tradition with a series victory over Australia earlier this month but fans were who had dug deep to follow the side around the world were short-changed with a clash with the Super Rugby season contributing to a decision to withdraw the Wallabies from the warm-up games.

If this plan was adopted, the Super Rugby season would be done and dusted by the time of the Lions' arrival in New Zealand in 2017 and that would boost the chances of full-strength provincial sides but the preferences of the All Blacks' coach would remain key. However, the shifting of the international window does not address the problem that continues to undermine the Lions efforts - a season that limits their time together.

Those in the southern hemisphere may suggest that is a problem for northern hemisphere stakeholders to address but it is unlikely that the Six Nations Committee would endorse any change without their concerns being addressed as part of this process.

This proposal is a starting point for what the authors hope will be a fruitful discussion on the future structure of the game. The players' united voice is certainly powerful enough to "open the minds" of those with the power to trigger change while the latent threat of a strike should be enough to prompt change.

Will the Lions' push for more success be helped by proposed changes to the global calendar? © Getty Images
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.

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