By David Wilkinson
If you’re an English rugby fan there has been nothing to see on the telly for the past two weeks, as that’s the only way we can enjoy the best game in the world at the moment. At the advice of the French Government, the French rugby clubs involved in the Champions cup and the Challenge Cup were asked not to take part in cross border matches. As a consequence all matches were postponed except for those in Pro 14, that does not include English Clubs. It was hoped that Premiership Rugby would bring forward rounds 7 and 8 of the Premiership to fill the gap, instead, players were given a two-week break; probably much needed as the original Covid-19 lockdown had meant the two seasons virtually running into each other.
With no rugby in England being played, attention has been drawn to the off-field highlights, the biggest headlines being afforded to Eddie Jones’s new, England Squad for the upcoming Six Nations Championship and the appointment of Alex Sanderson as Director of Rugby at Sale Sharks.
In times gone by, the announcement of an England squad would come with bucket loads of anticipation and excitement, but having won the Autumn Nations Cup competition in December and the Six Nations Championship prior to that, the England squad would most likely be ‘settled’. This doesn’t, however, inhibit supporters from voicing their opinion and neither should it.
The most vociferous calls come for the inclusion of Sam Simmons and Jack Willis into the back-row. Two players that many would say are playing the best rugby in those positions within England. But Eddie has a bigger picture to look at, the form of the current incumbents within the England set up, playing strategy, and how would these players cope with the leap up to International Rugby? Jack Willis has had a brief sniff at it and some would say that Sam Simmons is simply not big enough to cope at the international level. I for one don’t agree with the size analogy and believe that his game-changing talents could be exploited to the full, given the strength of the bulk of the rest of the pack – it works for Exeter! However, in both cases, their stats are just not as good as last season’s!
Both of the bolters in the backs, Paolo Odogwu and Harry Randall, are in-form, and non-conformists when it comes to the accepted statue for their respective positions. Harry Randall is possibly the smallest player in the Premiership but Eddie has had an eye on his rare talents for some time; he has a 100% pass record and has passed the ball more times than any other player in the Premiership; and his vision for spotting and executing a gap is something that will be of great interest to Eddie. In Paolo Odogwu England may have found a replacement for the injury-prone Manu Tuilagi. Whilst he doesn’t have the overall bulk of Manu, at 5’ 9” and 15.5 stone he is a super-charged pocket-rocket. Both could bring a line-breaking edge to England’s game that has been lacking in recent matches. Eddie will be keen to get them into camp and test them out, but don’t expect them to necessarily make the last 23.
Rugby returns to the Premiership on Friday evening with a tasty encounter between Leicester and Sale Sharks. It will be the first game in charge for the new DOR Alex Sanderson and you can guarantee that he will have his new team charged-up for the encounter. Many will see Sanderson as the natural replacement for Steve Diamond, ex Sale Sharks and a gritty Northerner, with plenty of experience of working with South African players.
Outside of the Premiership, community rugby clubs, as well as other sporting clubs, have had a torrid time since March 2020. The affect of the lockdown has meant little revenue for most of these clubs. No bars sales, little membership subscriptions and sponsorship money has meant clubs have been hanging on, trying to cover their fixed overheads. Some clubs will now be very fearful of the future. No one knows how long the current lockdown will last; the best guess is that there will be no competitive rugby until September 2021. Storm Christophe has now made matters even worse for some clubs; locally, Didsbury TOC H was submerged when the Mersey was flooded by the EA into their basin to save local housing. Further upstream Old Bedians and Burnage rugby clubs were also on the edge of being flooded; Bedians having a visit from Boris with the EA, it was touch and go but the flood defences have just about held, although they may not be quite out of it yet. It’s likely that many clubs may be on the verge of collapse and will be reliant upon funds from the RFU and their local authorities to keep them afloat. Thankfully Macclesfield is not in that predicament. The recent good news to come via the RFU is that they will be administering £23m in grants to clubs in most need. Our Cheshire RFU Councillor reported that the money will be by a grant but at the moment the means-test criteria have yet to be confirmed.
As well as financial support from the membership, volunteers at Macclesfield Rugby Club have ensured that changes were made during the first Lockdown that secured an income stream up until Christmas time. It’s not just one group of volunteers that makes things happen at the Club, but a number of diverse groups of people who dedicate their time, skills and energy for the good of the membership per se. During the next few months, we will be highlighting the work of all those involved; starting with the Ground-staff.