Rugby should learn from the NFL and align the global game

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Here in Sydney it is a hot and humid January. In Europe, the last rounds of Champions Cup pool stages and the Six Nations are about to start but in the south late summer is the pre-season.

Across the Indian Ocean, the South African provincial teams have decided to play at home in the heat of an African summer and away in the cold of the northern winter. The South Africans have broken the link to their traditional seasons. While their schools and local clubs continue to play domestically in the southern autumn and winter, their professional teams have moved to home games in the summer.

Despite all the ramifications of the South African decisions, they are making the first tentative step to form a globally aligned professional club season. I believe that rugby in Australia would also benefit from aligning itself with the north as it is currently swamped by the enormity of the other domestic codes in AFL and rugby league.

Major League Rugby (MLR) in the USA and Super League, rugby league’s UK competition, have all made the conscious decision to play their seasons in the summer, away from the giant shadow that the NFL in America and the Premier League cast over TV rights, media coverage, sponsorship and the hearts and minds of the punters.

Harlequins host London Irish at the Twickenham Stoop in September 2020 - the early stages of the European domestic season. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty
Harlequins host London Irish at the Twickenham Stoop in September 2020 – the early stages of the European domestic season. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty

In Australia, the opposite has occurred. The A-League, the national soccer competition, has moved its season to the summer, away from the vastly more popular AFL and rugby league seasons. The strategic changes to their seasons are made because the sports are attempting to increase both media coverage and revenue streams while attracting new supporters.

In February MLR will commence its fifth season across the American summer, dodging the NFL and aligning itself with Super Rugby in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and the domestic South African clubs – the areas that supply the vast majority of the MLR’s foreign players.

The Top 14, the English Premiership and the United Rugby Championship remain wedged in the days of empires and the Raj, insisting on the madness of playing from August to June in France and September until late May for the rest.

All of these micro-decisions on competition playing calendars are being made by individual unions and not by World Rugby. Unlike almost every other world sport, rugby has no strategic plan for its global playing programmes.

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