Rugby is a great sport but one which is not exactly maximising its potential, so there is plenty of scope for improvement.
A raft of changes are required to create a vibrant and truly global game which respects the wishes of its core audiences, strives to expand into new territories and demographics and addresses the flaws holding it back.
Here is my wish-list for 2022…
A revamp is overdue to create more freedom of movement, jeopardy and a true meritocracy.
How many more times do Italy have to lose all of their Six Nations games to persuade the powers-that-be to embrace the concept of promotion and relegation? The Azzurri are not competitive so they should be forced to fight for their place via a play-off against the winners of the Rugby Europe Championship.
That would be a highly marketable, profitable fixture and if Georgia can go to Rome and win there, they deserve to be promoted.
Italy have lost regularly in the Six Nations over the years and their place may be in jeopardy
Japan are in talks about joining an annual tournament and it makes sense for the Brave Blossoms and Fiji to be added to the Rugby Championship, to breathe new life into a stale competition.
South Africa should remain where they are, but clever scheduling is required to stage games across such a vast area and many time zones.
Quite simply, rugby needs to be seen more widely to safeguard its future. Having the Six Nations on free-to-air television is a major boost but then the sport disappears from view for most people. The authorities must recognise the importance of projection as well as profits.
The Premiership has a subterranean profile in terms of public awareness so it must reinstate weekly terrestrial highlights and consider allowing the final to be free-to-air, too.
Summer Test tours and now even autumn Tests are increasingly out of sight and out of mind.
Ideally, France’s Top 14 league would be screened in the UK, along with Super Rugby. There must be a push to market the sport and that starts with letting people see what it is all about.
SECOND TIER UPGRADE
English rugby needs to enhance the Championship so there are two professional divisions in the country. The system in France is light years ahead and the comparisons are brutal. If Premiership budgets are being squeezed due to salary cap reduction, there must be a means of spreading players across two viable divisions.
Visionary administrators would be working flat out to generate new Championship sponsorship and innovations, not giving up on it. It is a division with value, as recent England newcomers such as Mark Atkinson and Nic Dolly would confirm.
Here’s hoping the crowds are allowed in for the Six Nations. Reverting to empty arenas would remove the tribal spirit and soul of the tournament and leave some unions on a financial precipice, again.
If governments insist that Covid passes are mandatory, so be it, but let people fill the stands. And there will have to be a common-sense policy relating to close contacts or those who test positive, otherwise there is no way the Championship will avoid disruption.
Six Nations matches were played behind closed doors last year due to the ongoing pandemic
Let this be the year when the dreaded ‘caterpillar’ is outlawed. Too many games are ruined by the ugly spectacle of players binding in a line behind rucks to allow the scrum-half to kick unhindered. It is a time-wasting curse which must be banished.
There’s no point trying to bring in more viewers and then subjecting them to extreme tedium like that.
Also get rid of the pitch-side lurkers masquerading as medics. Players don’t need water breaks every two minutes or physios screaming at them from the in-goal area.
Officials don’t need backroom staff giving back-chat.
If there are no bona fide injury emergencies, the only people on the pitch should be the players and the referee.
WORTH THE WAIT
The postponed women’s World Cup will take place in New Zealand in the autumn and organisers will be desperate for the Kiwi public to embrace the delayed showpiece. This is a crucial time for the women’s game, which could take off if properly supported.
What it needs is good crowds for the main event and also enough investment from unions to ensure that it is not just a procession for favourites England, with only New Zealand, France and Canada able to provide any meaningful opposition. There is still time for other countries to step up.
England’s women will be aiming for World Cup glory later this year after a fantastic 2021
England and Ireland both led opposition to any prospect of the Lions tour being delayed until this summer, so there is an onus on them to succeed Down Under at the end of this season.
England will believe they can push their dominant winning run over Australia into double figures and it would be welcome to see Jack Willis restored to the national squad after enduring a drawn-out recovery from a horror knee injury. As for Ireland, at least one win in New Zealand would validate the early signs that they can become a genuine world force under Andy Farrell.
CARRY ON ATTACKING
Rugby is having a positive phase at present, with attacks generally holding sway over defences. Anyone who values the basic staples of catch and pass and a quest for space and tries will keep fingers crossed that the delicate balance of laws and interpretations can extend this adventurous period.
This is a sport which tends to be strategically cyclical and also cynical, so the fear is that it won’t be long before spoiler tactics are developed and we are plunged back into a kick-and-bash grind.
Please don’t let that happen any time soon.
There was some brilliant attacking rugby in 2021, with France star Antoine Dupont flourishing
ISLANDS OF HOPE
This should be a breakthrough year for the Pacific island nations, which is cause for satisfaction in the sport at large. First, Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika will take part in Super Rugby Pacific.
All those who care about this project will want to see proof it is serving as a tool for developing talent and marquee fixture access in the islands, not acting as a back-door boost to the All Blacks’ talent pool.
After that, it would be great to see Samoa and Tonga unleash teams full of pedigree, newly- eligible players, but that means they need matches and preferably matches at home, to feel the benefit of the regulation reform.
The RFU should make 2022 the year they break with tradition by launching a meticulous plan, so they are ready for when Eddie Jones leaves his post as England head coach after the 2023 World Cup. The king makers at Twickenham need to start working out a template for the regime change, so that they have the best opportunity to avoid a turbulent transition. Whether they are going to want an English coach or another foreign candidate to succeed Jones, it is a big job which requires a big recruitment process. It needs to start soon.