Rugby seasons across the province have been shelved for the rest of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, following an announcement from BC Rugby last week.
But rather than wallow in the disappointment of a scuttled schedule, Bayside Rugby Club’s men’s coach Andy Blackburn hopes instead to use the break to bring forth positive change.
Namely, he’s renewed a push – which he said he’s made before – for the province’s club rugby season to move to a condensed spring schedule, rather than the current setup that runs in two halves, with the first running through the fall and winter – with an extended break for the holidays – and the second beginning in late winter/early spring, eventually wrapping up with provincial finals in May.
“It’s the biggest issue we have here in B.C., and I’ve been one of the biggest proponents of a new season,” Blackburn told Peace Arch News.
There are a handful of issues with the existing setup, Blackburn continued.
For starters, the B.C. rugby season – like the province’s soccer schedule – does not line up with leagues elsewhere, as it’s nearly impossible in other parts of the country to play an outdoor field sport in snowy, cold conditions.
But perhaps most important, Blackburn notes, is the sheer length of the season, which currently starts with preseasons games in late summer, and doesn’t wrap up until nine months later.
“It’s just the grind of the schedule … it’s not the number of games, it’s just the nature of how they’re scheduled,” he explained.
“And we’ve got that five- or six-week break (for Christmas) right in the middle of the season. Your players are just becoming match-fit come November, and then suddenly they have a break.
“And these are amateur players – and your average amateur player doesn’t use that break wisely. And then they come back in worse shape than when they left, and you start all over again and hope to get into top form in time for playoffs. You never really get players playing at the peak of fitness for any prolonged period of time.”
In recent years, Bayside – and other clubs – have seen numbers decline as players are unable or unwilling to commit for such long periods of time, Blackburn said. As well, playing nine months out of the year takes its toll on players physically, he added.
In fact, players’ health and safety was a key reason the current season was scrapped, rather than simply pushed ahead to an undetermined summer date.
“Rugby is a contact sport, so what shape would these players be in if it’s suddenly ‘Game-on’ in a few months? Player welfare was a big issue.”
Though the current COVID-19 crisis was unexpected and out of anyone’s control, Blackburn noted that this is the second year in a row the season has been truncated due to unforeseen circumstances. Last year, B.C. club teams – of all ages and genders – did not play for a number of weeks due to snow and ice.
“We had about a five-week period where we didn’t play a game because hell froze over,” Blackburn said.
“These things – like COVID – they’re out of anyone’s control, but it’s still hard to look at what’s happened and say we’ve offered value for the money our players are paying.”
Though bullish on the idea of a schedule switch, Blackburn admits there could be field availability issues for some clubs if they’re suddenly playing later into the spring, though he suggested home games for those teams could be played earlier in the schedule before city fields gets booked with new sports. Games could also be played on a Thursday or Friday night rather than the more traditional Saturday afternoon, he said.
As well, if the current crisis improves by late summer, for example, and players are allowed back on the pitch, Blackburn knows it may be tough to convince players – fresh off a forced sabbatical – that they’ll now have to wait until the following March to play. If such a scenario comes to pass, he suggested less-competitive events could be scheduled – from exhibition tournaments to seven-a-side games – to fill the void.
“After times like this right now, I think a lot of people would come out of the woodwork to play again, whether it’s touch rugby, sevens or something with lower stakes,” he said. “Just get people playing again.
“If we – and BC Rugby – would just think outside the box a little bit, we could use this as an opportunity to adjust, look to the future and say, ‘How can we do things differently?’ I think a season change is one good thing that could come from this (current cancellation).
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But this has been broke for a long period of time.”