The Six Nations Championship has been shunted around the fixture list over the past couple of seasons, to the extent that the final match of this year's tournament was played in the dead of the Parisian night - a positive development for insomniacs, but wholly negative for those sporting folk who like to supplement their fix of international rugby with a libation or two.
If the Rugby Football Union has its way, the Six Nations will be moved again, this time to a late-spring slot. Forget the mud in the eye, beware the sunstroke.
Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU and an enthusiastic advocate of further change to the schedule, confirmed yesterday that Twickenham would push for a blocking-off of the Six Nations when independent consultants appointed by the International Rugby Board begin gauging support for a "global season" aimed at bringing the northern and southern hemisphere fixture lists together and reducing the stresses and strains on top-flight professional players.
Only this week, the England full-back Jason Robinson asked to be excused from next month's tour of New Zealand and Australia, claiming he was "running on empty" after more than a decade of all-year-round rugby. Many of England's World Cup-winning squad are touring, however, and will have little in the way of time off until July 2005, when the British and Irish Lions complete their eagerly-awaited three-Test trip to All Black country.
"We have a duty of care to the players; we want their careers to be prolonged, not shortened," Baron said. "We are thinking through a number of initiatives, but a global season is the ultimate goal. The RFU recommended that the International [Rugby] Board go down the independent consultation route, because this is a very complex issue that needs to be debated in an objective, open manner rather than through the traditional hemispherical committee structure. Everyone accepts that the current fixture list doesn't work as well as we would like."
Baron emphasised that "radical changes impacting on revenue streams" were not on the table. "We're not talking about the north playing rugby in July and August, or the south playing in December and January," he said. "Seismic changes are not an option. But there are a lot of improvements to be made at the margins, and with some collective will on the part of the national unions, we can do more to protect our players while defending the interests of the club game and the broadcasters.
"My personal view is that the Six Nations should be moved to the end of the season. If that happens, and the south make adjustments of their own, we will see some progress."
Toulouse, the reigning European champions, have named a 24-man squad for Sunday's Heineken Cup final with Wasps at Twickenham. All 10 of their backs are full internationals, and a number of recently injured players are fit to travel.Reuse content