National League rugby clubs are still without answers regarding how their new campaign will look, after organisers confirmed little likelihood of any competitive play in October, writes Andrew Clayton.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the NCA declared that “unless there is a dramatic improvement in the prevalence of [Covid-19] in the community,” no adult rugby will be played.
Steve Grainger, development director at the Rugby Football Union, added that the governing bodies for the sport remain ‘stuck’ until government policy changes, or the virus starts to disappear.
As it stands, the RFU’s next available playing window for level three and four clubs will see competitions starting by November 28, with 15 matches either home or away before splitting the divisions in two for another seven games.
Earlier this week, meanwhile, the governing body announced a step forward to ‘Stage D’ on their ‘Return to Rugby roadmap’, which now allows for 15-minute bouts of contact training for teams.
For those clubs in the National League, the delay hardly comes as a shock. Damian Welch, head coach of National League One stalwarts Plymouth Albion, told The Independent: “To be honest, it’s not really a surprise, bearing in mind where we are with the RFU roadmap. We’ve only just got to D, so realistically things just weren’t going to progress to rugby in October. From our point of view, we are disappointed.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of hurdles we have to jump over to get back to that playing stage, in terms of that October start, we knew it was going to be a bit early. It does give us that bit of time to make sure we’ve got everything finalised, nailed down, for when the season does get up and running.”
The argument for when rugby returns, however, is what it should count for. Although this season will look different to years gone by, some clubs are happy for the same rewards – and pitfalls – to be present in its new iteration.
Plymouth Albion are just one of a number of clubs chasing a spot in the Championship, and, as Welch explains, that goal will be dependent on how this season plays out: “From what I’ve read, everyone wants that meaningful season.
“If that means we run it on a bit later than has traditionally been the case, then that’s a decision for people who are on a higher pay grade than myself.
“But, from a squad point of view, we are trying to build something, so where you’re in a position where you have these ambitions, for us, a meaningful season is going to keep up with that.
“It’s a hard one to get your hopes up, because we’ve got to be reasonable and understand that this is an unprecedented situation. For us to progress, obviously we have to work hard on and off the field, but we need that meaningful season to get to that as well. At the end of the day, it’s what [the players] are training for.”
Some clubs, however, are not quite so convinced. In National League Two South, newly-relegated Canterbury have publicly said that they would refuse to travel as far as the West Country during a shortened season.
Speaking to The Independent, Redruth director of rugby, Nigel Hambly, said he would accept playing a meaningful but truncated season, but could also sympathise with his league rivals.
“It’s always good to have some competition, players and fans like that,” he began. “But, this year, there’s no travel funding. We’ll be going to places like Bury St Edmunds, Guernsey and Southend. I’ve never moaned about the travelling, that was there before I started, but we’ve got practically no help from the RFU. I think it’s very unfair, the way that hings are.
“I know Canterbury have come out and been vocal, saying they’re not travelling to Barnstaple and Redruth and, if I’m honest, I don’t think Redruth will be too far behind them.
“You also have to consider the Covid, travelling over the country and back. The argument is that we could go to somewhere as close as Camborne and get it, but there are hotspots in places like Leicester which have now been released from lockdown. All these things have to be taken into consideration.
“Whether they have competitive rugby just locally and there’s no league, or whether there will be a league, I don’t know.
“They’re talking about promotion and relegation; if we have a 15 or 20-game season, the argument is whether that’s fair or not.
“I don’t know if it is, when the structure has always been to play 30 league games. There’s lots of pros and cons.
“We’re just looking to be the best we can and if that involves playing a shortened season, we’ll get on with it.”