The restart date for the Premiership looks set to be pushed back from late July until August after Gloucester said they did not expect clubs to return to training for another month. That would mean staging the play-off final in October and a clash with plans to play out the postponed Six Nations.
The Premiership had been aiming to resume on 27 June and play the season to its conclusion before, after a short break, starting the 2020-21 campaign on time. That will not happen and the end of July is looking less likely, with medical experts recommending players train for at least six weeks before a resumption.
That increases the likelihood of a fixture logjam. Along with this year’s postponed Six Nations match against Italy and their autumn fixtures, England could play seven matches, while Champions Cup organisers have targeted October for completing this season’s competition.
“A return to training is expected to be a month away,” the Gloucester chief executive, Lance Bradley, said. “Premiership Rugby has been in discussions with the government for many weeks about when it is likely to be safe to return to playing rugby, when we can return to training and when it is likely that we will be permitted to host crowds again. Our current thoughts are that we will be training from July, but that is not confirmed yet.”
Bradley said that despite government protocols being issued for the resumption of sport, “because of the specific nature of our sport we do not yet have the go-ahead to resume training: we expect to receive notification of when we will be able to do so in the first half of June.
“We expect that games will start to be played once training has been under way for a few weeks. How many depends on how quickly full contact training can resume, but we expect it to be between four and eight weeks. Whether the games take place behind closed doors or not will depend upon government advice at the time.”
Premiership Rugby has been planning for the rest of the season – nine rounds before the play-off semi-finals and final – to be played out at one or two grounds behind closed doors. Eight clubs have pitched to stage the games, but the longer the resumption is delayed the greater the hope that fans, albeit in reduced numbers, will be allowed in.
“The rules and recommendations are changing on an almost daily basis,” said Bradley. “We are exploring every possible option, including if we may be able to have a smaller crowd, socially distanced, within Kingsholm. Nothing is definite as we are facing an unprecedented and rapidly changing scenario. It is, however, absolutely still the plan to finish the 2019-20 season.”
Gloucester are using the extra time to consider their options as they search for a new head coach to replace Johan Ackermann, who has moved to Japan. They have drawn up a shortlist and the frontrunners are believed to be the club’s skills coach, Rory Teague, and the former Wales and Lions assistant coach Rob Howley, whose ban for breaching betting regulations ends this month. “We plan to make an announcement in early July,” said Bradley.
The shutdown has hit Premiership clubs hard financially, with Exeter expecting to record their first loss since being promoted to the Premiership 10 years ago. “We are all affected by the significant and challenging trading conditions we are facing and will continue to face in the ongoing economic environment, a crisis the like of which the world has not seen the second world war,” admitted Bradley.
“There are one or two clubs with extremely rich owners who may be less concerned, but the shutdown has cost us a significant amount of money, although we are in a better financial position than many.”
Finance is the reason the clubs are determined to finish the season, but an August start would push back the beginning of the new campaign to November. The restart date may not be a problem, with the Six Nations and Rugby Championship countries planning another meeting on 15 June to discuss a global calendar.
Reports in France said there were two options on the table. The first would involve the three major leagues in Europe starting their campaigns in January 2021 and playing eight rounds before breaking in March, when the Six Nations and Rugby Championship would be played in tandem. The clubs would resume in late April and play through to the end of September, although it would mean the Lions tour to South Africa being pushed back to October, along with the other summer tours, before Europe’s November Test window.
The second option would see the two championships being played in their current slots and club seasons played in one block from March. It would shorten the campaign but mean that leading players were available throughout, although subject to rest periods. Nothing will be decided without input from clubs and players’ associations.