Nov-March Season Among Many Pluses, A Minus Too
NOW that the SLRFU’s executive committee has legislated a new calendar for inter-club competitions, it’ll mean fans will have rugby virtually year round. Traditionally, the club season has been between May and September, and ran concurrently with the inter-schools season.
As the inter-club season is moved to the November-March period, the schools will have the traditional May to September season all to their own. What this means is rugby goes off the radar for about only three months in the year, as opposed to the traditional seven-month hiatus. The three new off-season months: April, between the club competitions’ closure in March and the start of the schools season in May, and in September and October, betwixt the schools and club seasons.
A nine-month season is inordinately longish to say the least, but, on face value, the extension should not be a bad thing, especially for inter-club rugby. As club games won’t have to compete with school games for audience-interest, the prospect looks good for a recovery in the declining popularity of club rugby. But nine months of rugby presents a danger as well – the danger of too-much-of-one-thing- is-good-for-nothing syndrome setting in. And that isn’t the only potential enemy the November-March club season is likely to encounter.
Long accustomed to a May to September season, viewing rugby between November and March is a new habit that will have to be cultivated, and that is going to take quite some time – and quite some effort, remembering the inherent “distractions” that the month-long Christmas and New Year season bring to society.
Even without such distractions, inter-club seasons of the recent past haven’t attracted the sort of numbers it did. Where fans once flocked by the thousands to pack all four sides of the playing field, these days clubs describe as “bonus” gate-takings derived from a thousand or thereabouts spectators. The erosion of the public’s interest in inter-club tournaments, as all know, was due to a lack of competitiveness, or more pointedly, the unchallenged supremacy of Kandy SC, league and knockout champions for more years than one cares to count.
If the fare is going to be boringly repetitive and predictable, as it had been for the better part of the past two decades (read: since the beginning of Kandy SC’s domination in the early 90s), one fears for the future of the new November-March season. Said simply, if the fare is not going to be anything less than arresting, first season on, the prospect of inter-club matches playing to empty stands becomes very real. After all, between the present hundreds to nearly-nothing is only tip away from the ravine below. That would put the November-March inter-club season in a far worse plight as far as spectator support is concerned.
And sparse crowds over long years are why rugby has fallen on hard times: not just the clubs but the SLRFU itself is in penury. So, if poor fare continues to erode attendance in the November to March season, as it will, the repercussion can be serious. Sponsors, naturally, would be reluctant to invest in a sport that hasn’t public support, a state of affairs which, in these times of professionalism, would be pretty much like directing the game to mortuary’s door.
The advantage of conducing the schools and club seasons at separate times was that all of the resources, in terms of grounds, coaches, referees and fitness gyms (all of which haven’t been in abundance) would become available to both. But there’s a risk factor which proponents of the November-March club season lost sight of. It is an unarguable fact that over quite some seasons schools games have enjoyed a far greater following than club matches – simply because the former dished out fare of a superior quality to the latter, apart from the reason that old boys and students outnumber the collective membership of the competing club. So, after some four-five months of lively inter-school matches, the inter-club tournaments had better provide top drawer stuff. Otherwise, fans are going to be content following just the inter-school season, which is the traditional season anyway –than bother watching rugby in strangely different months, if all it evokes are a few yawns.
There is reason, though, to be hopeful that a doomsday scenario won’t come upon the November-March inter-club season. The hope is born from a greater equality evident in the competition of the past two seasons. The contents of Kandy SC’s trophy cupboard, of course, hadn’t gotten any less than what it was for a decade-plus years. But their walk to the prize table has been less sure-footed; last season was especially gingerly. The Navy repeated their triumph of 2010 over the perennial champions last year as well, and resurgent Havelocks all but overcame Kandy SC in the first round of the 2011 league. The Havelocks, at the bottom of the table in 2010, gave the 2011 season a Cinderella-like twist by defeating high-riding Navy, inflicting on the sailors’ their first loss on home turf in two seasons. The Havelocks, in fact, came within striking distance of the league title more than once. Eventually, it finished third.
For historical reasons CR remains a serious rival of the champion side. Given that Kandy SC’s rise was inspired by some half-dozen defectors from the CR in the early 90s, the ambition of both clubs is not to lose to the other. And although Kandy SC may have had the better of the exchanges, of CR’s ambition has been anything but subdued. The Air Force and the Police, ever the shock makers, can be relied on to pull the rug from under the top teams, as the airmen did last season against the CR. So the ingredients are there for an exciting tournament in the November-March season – except that the 2012 season has to be conducted before the 2013 league is launched in November 2012. And should the last of the May- September tournaments return to its old one-sided ways, then, the promise for closer competition held out by the events of last season might evaporate. Club rugby’s new calendar requires an auspicious launch to give it a hopeful future.
The biggest motivation for shifting the inter-club season to November-March is to make the premier domestic tournaments a useful tool in our preparations for the Asian Five Nations tournament, singly our most crucial international engagement and always held in April. To refresh your minds on the benefits of the November-March season from an international perspective, a reproduction of a passage from this column of Feb.5: By ending the four-month domestic season in March, with the April Asian Five Nations (A5N) looming, would mean that 1/ players are chosen on current form (as opposed to form of half year ago, which is the case in a May-September season); 2/ players will be in prime physical condition and thus 3/ saving time which otherwise would be spent on players’ fitness, so that preparations (for the A5N) can solely focus on gelling fifteen different players into a unit, rehearsing and perfecting tactical ploys and, basically, putting the finishing touches to a team readying for a campaign only weeks away.
It is fair to say that our demotion to the second tier A5N competition after just a year in the top tier and our slide in the Asian Sevens ranking to eleventh, after long being among the top five, are largely due to our domestic season being not in sync with our international programme.
To move the start of the inter-club season to the backend of year and ending it in March of the next year is both an imaginative and brave one. It will contribute significantly to our cause in international rugby, but its role in bringing back the old allure of inter-club rugby remains to be seen. So, let’s not applaud the shift to a November-March season just yet.