Bath owner Bruce Craig has issued a threat to World Rugby, warning them that he will block player release if Test rugby matches are played in October. Ever since the coronavirus pandemic led to the postponement of four recent Guinness Six Nations matches, there has been speculation that the weeks before the traditional November Test window would be the ideal time to stage these rescheduled games.
October has also been mentioned as a possibility to hold the July tour fixtures if those matches – as is expected – also fall by the wayside due to the virus outbreak. There were early indications regarding the Six Nations games that player release by the English clubs would not be an issue.
However, that is no longer the case. Not only has Bath boss Craig broken ranks and issued a threat to World Rugby, but EPCR chairman Simon Halliday has also slammed the notion that October, a month where two weekends are traditionally set aside for Champions Cup matches, would be surrendered to accommodate Test games instead.
There has been much rancour lately concerning the club game, its administrators peeved that they were blindsided by Bernard Laporte’s off-the-cuff claim that a Club World Cup was in the pipeline to replace the Champions Cup. This idea by the Frenchman, who is looking to become World Rugby’s new vice-president, didn’t go down well and neither has the claim that October can become a Test rugby window to clear the backlog of international games.
According to World Rugby regulation 9, clubs are only obliged to release players to play for their countries during set international windows such as November, and Craig has now revealed he won’t play ball regarding Test player release in October. That would mean stars like Anthony Watson and Sam Underhill would be off-limits to England’s Eddie Jones.
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Speaking to Telegraph Sport, Craig said: “The leagues need to defend our rights and defend our competitions and defined blocks allocated by World Rugby under regulation 9. Last week World Rugby indicated an intention to take the club October window which cuts straight across the European club and domestic seasons.
“We will defend our legal and structural position. Next season’s calendar is formally in place which has been signed off by the professional game board. We will respect our obligations to the RFU and the professional game agreement and the regulations set out by World Rugby.
“We have got television contracts and sponsorship deals that we need to fulfil. The reality is we will be unable to release our players during October for international duty otherwise we will be in breach of existing contracts.”
His concerns were supported by European rugby boss Halliday, whose organisation still have the 2019/20 season to finish after the early April quarter-finals were postponed. “We absolutely do not accept a schedule of international rugby in October,” said Halliday to the Guardian.
“That directly clashes with us and we are informing World Rugby we fully intend to use our October window if we need it. We could play our semis and finals on those two weekends or, alternatively, just use one of them for the final and try and find two other dates in August and September for the quarters and semis.
“When you have club tournaments locked into multi-year contracts with partners and broadcasters, which is the lifeblood of the game, you can’t just cancel everything. If we don’t do what we are contracted to do, there are serious ramifications.
“We can’t be bailed out by World Rugby, we don’t have that luxury. But we’re all connected, we’re all part of the same game. The value of our tournament, the Premiership, the PRO14 and the Top 14 collectively, is close to a billion pounds. Before people start saying what is valuable, it constitutes a very large – and increasing – percentage of the world’s rugby revenue. Significant investment has been made in European rugby.”
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