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Ripping up global calendar for summer US World Cup makes sense if rugby is to crack America

Hours at the negotiating table lie ahead to either shift or alter the domestic seasons, or for clubs to release their Test players early

Sir Bill Beaumont hailed the potential impact of rugby in the United States Credit: SPORTSFILE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Moving the 2031 Rugby World Cup to avoid clashing with the NFL season might be a pragmatic move, ensuring as many eyeballs are on the World Cup as possible and guaranteeing access to all NFL stadia at the same time. 

But it might also lead to throwing the whole global calendar off kilter and with some tense discussions to come between World Rugby, unions and the respective leagues.

Alan Gilpin, the World Rugby chief executive officer, noted following confirmation of the USA 2031 and 2033 men's and women's Rugby World Cups that the men's tournament would be held "slightly earlier" than the usual mid-September to late-October window. 

A first summer Rugby World Cup since 1995 in South Africa would have to take place between July and August to avoid overlapping with the NFL season, which usually gets underway in mid-September (after three pre-season games).

Given the current end dates of the domestic seasons in Europe - this season's Gallagher Premiership final takes place on June 18, for example - plenty of hours at the negotiating table lie ahead to either shift or alter the domestic seasons, or for clubs to release their Test players early despite competing for trophies at the end of the season so their countries can prepare for the World Cup. Or, for pre-World Cup camps to be condensed into brutally short time periods.

"We're not going to do a Qatar and just plonk it in the middle of other competitions," Gilpin said on Thursday. 

The only difficulty with World Rugby's eagerness to be good guests by not stepping on any of their hosts' toes - the NBA season will wrap up in June, while Major League Baseball will continue in the background regardless with the play-offs not beginning until October - is that as a result the Premiership, United Rugby Championship, Top 14, Champions and Challenge Cups could all suffer if top players are unavailable and away on early Test duty.

But if those Test players remained with their clubs until the end of the season, that would then leave minimal preparation time for each country ahead of a potential World Cup starting in early to mid-July.

'The USA is the golden nugget everyone wants to get a hold of'

England spent a total of 17 days alone undergoing warm-weather training camps in Italy and two further five-day camps in Bristol to prepare for the 2019 tournament in Japan between July and August, not forgetting their three warm-up fixtures against Wales and Ireland. Replicating that in 2031 if the World Cup is brought forward seems impossible.

"We would [consider moving the World Cup]," Gilpin added. "If you think about 2003 in Australia, it was slightly later than our usual World Cup window. The US ideally would be slightly earlier. What we now need to do with the certainty we have from today is to think about the benefits and challenges that come with that.

"A lot of that will involve some grown-up discussions with professional leagues around the world and the impacts that could have on their seasons. There are those considerations to have.

There is time at least - nine years - to iron out the creases. Gilpin added that 2031 is expected to become the first billion-dollar World Cup, presuming that doesn't happen first with Australia in 2027, and there is every chance money may talk and the various leagues will be compensated considerably for the one-off sacrifice to heavily disrupt their seasons. 

Because, to be blunt, the 2031 World Cup absolutely has to be a success if rugby union is to have a hope of cracking the sporting market in the United States, meaning all parties need to be on board.

"The USA is the golden nugget everyone wants to get a hold of," Sir Bill Beaumont, the World Rugby chairman, said in Dublin. Signing the contract is one thing, but making the 2031 World Cup a hit suddenly feels absolutely pivotal for the rugby union to jump to the next level. And to do that, for one season the existing formats across the world may well need to be ripped up for the greater good of the game.

One last thought: a summer World Cup for spectators back in the UK is an interesting proposition, with no other major sporting events taking place outside of the usual Wimbledon and Silverstone. Afternoon matches on the east coast kicking off with supporters back home packing out pubs and tending to barbecues each evening? That sounds appealing.