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Summer season a tough sell as rugby will have to battle GAA

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Philip Browne

Philip Browne

SPORTSFILE

Philip Browne

Full stadiums, fine weather, firm pitches, fast-tempo games. Summer rugby has a nice ring to it.

If such a perfect world existed, however, then rugby wouldn't still find itself in the same position as it was 13 years ago when the bigwigs first met to discuss aligning the global season.

There have been positive sound bites about finally ensuring that the northern and southern hemisphere seasons are reshaped to work in tandem with one another, but rugby remains stuck at a crossroads.

It's not difficult to work out why that is either, because talk might be cheap but the cost of running the professional game is not. Yesterday's latest meeting of the Professional Game Forum, which involved figures from across the game, including the IRFU, was said to be a discussion on the same theme.

But there is only so much talking that can be done before some big decisions need to be made because, as Warren Gatland succinctly put it last week, it is now or never for rugby's global calendar.

There is no doubt that changes are coming, yet it remains to be seen what they entail given the number of balls that are currently in the air.

One thing for sure is that, regardless of the finer details, rugby in this part of the world would have to shift to the summer months, which opens up a whole other can of worms.

On the face of it, the Tour de France, England's cricket season and the GAA might not have much in common, but they are each seen as major obstacles to any hopes of rugby being played in July and August.

Public approaches have differed and it will come as no surprise that France have been the most outspoken with Paul Goze, president of the French National Rugby League (LNR), warning against the dangers of rugby going up against "big global sporting events".

We would happily wager that Monsieur Goze and his English counterparts couldn't give a fiddler's about the GAA, but on these shores, hurling and football are king when it comes to the summer months.

It is understood that this is a major concern for the IRFU, who, when contacted by the Herald, said: "We are not making any comment on the various possible scenarios."

Instead, the union pointed us towards Philip Browne's recent media call, during which the CEO conceded that there was "a lot of challenges in trying to get a greater level of alignment between the hemispheres."

Privately at least, Browne and the IRFU know that competing with the GAA for bums on seats is a recipe for disaster - just as France don't want to go up against the Tour and England would rather not be battling with cricket.

That is part of the reason why sport in this country works so well.

As soon as rugby finishes up in June, the GAA championships are in full flow, which allows a huge number of supporters to switch seamlessly between the two, and then revert back to rugby come September.

It goes without saying that not everyone fits into that category, but it is a significant amount to warrant a fair degree of caution before jumping for joy at the idea of summer rugby.

France have made their feelings perfectly clear and while the RFU's chief Bill Sweeney recently pointed to the apparent 'success' of rugby league as a summer sport, you will forgive us for not being giddy with excitement at the prospect of following that particular example. 

From what we understand, the English union would also rather the season started in December (to July), and not February (to September) as has also been mooted.

The point is, every time the powers-that-be log into the virtual conference calls, they are each doing so with their own agendas.

There is a belief across the board that rugby's calendar will soon adjust, with the hope being that more meaningful matches are played on a more regular basis.

While that is all well and good, it is not much use if crowd attendances and TV deals are impacted because of other sporting events taking place at the same time.

It is also worth asking: what would summer rugby mean for the amateur game? The All-Ireland League is already on its knees crying out for help.

Would such a move not cut it adrift even further?

If the last few years are anything to go by, the Top 14 and English Premiership will be slow to jump through hoops for anyone.

The IRFU may well row in behind them because taking on the GAA is a battle rugby will not be able to win.