It is getting harder and harder to determine exactly when the rugby season officially ends: when you can stop planning your weekends around the televised rugby schedule and step blearily out into the light on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon. Keeping up with it all can be quite a task. My dad chops and changes between subscriptions to BT Sport and Sky Sports over the course of the year, according to which network is broadcasting that month’s pre-eminent competition. Admittedly, this extra layer of complication is down to him being too tight to pay an extra ten quid a month to have both on the go at once (Chivas Regal isn’t getting any cheaper, you know), but it demonstrates that for nine or ten months of the year your averagely interested rugby fan is spoilt for choice. And also that he may also get to the end of May as ready for a break as the professionals he spends the year watching.
I say, “the professionals” as thankfully the ever-extending season hasn’t permeated down to the grassroots level of the game. Most leagues still finish around April-time, allowing amateur players to switch to cricket, maybe get a bit of golf in at the weekends or even, if they are young and fit and possibly mentally unstable, take part in a few sevens tournaments.
That kind of time-table seems far more civilised than the one the full-timers follow. There are very obvious commercial considerations as to why there are so many games played at the top level, but from a fan’s point of view the pro game is getting harder to keep track of. The northern hemisphere’s season contains countless parentheses and codicils such as the LV Cup, breaks for international matches, the switches between European and domestic competitions, the much debated play-off system… etc etc. Is there a risk that by the time the “business end” arrives, when the important stuff such as, erm, who wins the whole shebang, is decided, the rugby public have begun to lose the thread of the season’s narrative, and that general interest is actually on the wane?
I might argue that a fan’s enthusiasm peaks around mid-winter, when final standings in the leagues, the European Cup and even the Six Nations are still completely up in the air. If you support a professional club or national team directly, you may still at that stage have the expectation or hope that they will do something special this year. Later, once it becomes clear that you are heading for mid-table mediocrity or yet another Wooden Spoon, it is understandable that attention drifts. It is the element of uncertainty and anticipation, coupled with the fact that there is not much else to do during crappy winter weekends than watch sport, that lead to the notion that excitement reaches its critical mass mid-season.
The play-off system is, of course, designed to combat this problem, and in the English Premiership this season the battle for a top four spot and home advantage did make for great viewing in the final few games. But the flipside of the regular season’s emphasis on qualification is that simply qualifying becomes the end in itself. It can be difficult for both fans and players to then raise themselves again for the knock-out matches. Each year, there seems to be one team who run out of steam at the crucial moment (is it coincidence that it is often the team who battled hard to finish first in the league?). So, this year it was Northampton who were slightly off the boil in capitulating at home to Saracens. Saracens, meanwhile took the route previously perfected by Leicester; look a bit ropey through the year, come good just in time for the play-offs and use the adrenalin and momentum of having narrowly qualifying to propel you to the title.
There was great drama in that, and there is no doubt that the play-offs guarantee that the season will end with some sort of bang, negating the possibility of the damp squib of a runaway league winner (such as with Chelsea this year). But whichever way the winners and losers are decided, I can’t escape the feeling that it is the meaty bit in the middle of the season that really pumps one’s ‘nads.’ It’s not unique to rugby; I can’t be alone in enjoying the group stages of the football World Cup or the Champions League more than I do most of the knockout stages. It is the prospect of an unexpected result, as well as the unusual match-ups between Togo and Australia (read Connacht against Clermont, say, in the Champions’ Cup), that really fire the imagination. Once the competition is whittled down to the usual, hard-nosed suspects (your Toulons, Leinsters and Saracens in rugby terms), some of the romance is lost.
That’s my opinion anyway. The alternative is that I am talking utter balls.