Rugby staggers over 2020 finishing line after tumultuous year

Rugby has staggered over the finishing line of a tumultuous 2020 that signposts an uncertain future for the sport.

A year that began with Saracens’ automatic relegation from the Gallagher Premiership as punishment for repeated salary cap breeches, ends with the emergence of a concussion lawsuit that could have grave implications.

The news that a number of former players including England internationals Steve Thompson and Michael Lipman are to take legal action against the game, after being diagnosed with early onset dementia, comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has exposed rugby’s shaky financial foundations.

Club and country alike sought Government bailouts to avoid fiscal ruin and the knock-on effect of Covid-19 has been felt right down to the grass roots.

But the sport also displayed a remarkable resilience. The 2019-20 Gallagher Premiership and Champions Cup seasons were completed despite a five-month period of hibernation as the world came to terms with the pandemic.

A casualty of the interruption to the league was its integrity as a series of mismatches made inevitable by the need to cram in midweek games led to lopsided scorelines, while Sale were unable to take their place in the play-offs because of an outbreak of coronavirus.

Crucially, however, the competition produced its rightful champions as Exeter swept all before them and in dispatching Racing 92 to lift the European Cup, they became the fourth English club to complete the double.

Take a bow Rob Baxter, the outstanding director of rugby who in 10 years has transformed the Chiefs from Premiership newcomers to the dominant force on the continent. Baxter has assembled a superb squad but perhaps his finest achievement is making his teams greater than the sum of their parts.

Administrators can be easy targets but they deserve credit for the sport continuing amid a crisis that has presented extraordinary challenges.

When the southern hemisphere giants were robbed of the opportunity to visit these shores by coronavirus, the makeshift Autumn Nations Cup was created as an alternative.

It was beset with problems, from the early withdrawal of Japan to Fiji being limited to only one match due to a large outbreak of Covid-19. The attacking flair of both sides was sorely missed as series of defence-orientated games unfolded in front of empty stadiums.

Fresh from claiming the third Six Nations title of the Eddie Jones era by defeating Italy in October, England bulldozed a path through the competition as part of an eight-Test winning run.

It was a hard watch at times and they almost fell at the final hurdle when a shadow France team – weakened by the unavailability of over 25 front-line stars – went within 29 seconds of victory before extra-time was needed to separate the rivals.

As England ground out the wins, Wales and Ireland went backwards as their new coaching teams bedded in. On the evidence of 2020, they will have peripheral representation on next summer’s Lions tour to South Africa.

Marooned by coronavirus, the Springboks have not played a game since winning last autumn’s World Cup and the hosts of that tournament Japan have been similarly inactive.

Predictably, New Zealand won the Tri-Nations competition that replaced the end of year tours to Europe – but they fell to resurgent Argentina in one of the year’s standout moments.