Tom Vickers' view: The Premiership's two-week break is a bitter blow

The announcement that Premiership Rugby will be taking a two-week break this month will have come as a big blow for many supporters up and down the country.

Tuesday, 12th January 2021, 2:10 pm
Dan Biggar showed how much it meant to him after scoring for Saints in their most recent match, against Worcester on Boxing Day

The league had the chance to fill the void left by the temporary suspension of European competition by organising fixtures over the next two weekends.

Even if they didn't play two full rounds, they could have at least split things up and played three matches on each weekend, thus still giving clubs who need it at least a one-week rest.

It wouldn't have upset many in the game - in fact it appeared that many were in favour of that option, with the likes of Bristol boss Pat Lam and Exeter counterpart Rob Baxter leading the calls to play on.But while the Top 14 immediately took the decision to make use of those weeks off, and the Pro 14 could do likewise, Premiership Rugby quickly confirmed it would take a break.

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In the release issued on Monday evening, CEO Darren Childs said: "The welfare of everyone involved in Premiership Rugby is crucial to us and this break in the season gives us the chance to hand some much-needed rest to our hard-working players, management, staff and match officials.

"The Gallagher Premiership Rugby season will return - as scheduled - on Friday, January 29 when Bristol Bears host Bath Rugby live on BT Sport."

The problem is that January 29 feels such a long way off. Almost three weeks without rugby is a very long time in national lockdown.

And who knows what state the country will be in by then?

It could even be the case that elite sport is put on hold and then clubs face the prospect of more months, not weeks, without a game.

And for the clubs who have barely played during recent weeks due to Covid-19 issues, the shutdown will seem never-ending.

Saints are in that boat, having seen their past two league fixtures cancelled due to the dreaded virus, meaning that by the time they rock up at Kingsholm to face Gloucester on January 30, they will not have played for more than a month.

And while the well-being of the players is cited in Childs' quotes, it is not like they will all be back at home putting their feet up and not playing.

They will still have to put themselves at some sort of risk by going to training.

If they don't, they will be totally unprepared when the action does resume, therefore running the risk of physical injury.

And what do players prefer - training with no game at the weekend or training with a game at the weekend?

Having spoken to many over the years, and plenty when rugby shut down during the first lockdown last year, I can tell you that most would say the latter.

For players, coaches, supporters and members of the media, matchday is the best day of the week.

But now that has been taken away until the end of what is becoming an increasingly long month.

This is not just about getting matches played and keeping the sport's wheel turning, making use of Six Nations players etc, it is about something far greater: mental health.

It is a subject that rugby has got better at talking about in recent times, with campaigns such as the Rugby Players' Association's Lift The Weight prevalent.

There has been plenty of talk about elite sport of late, with some suggesting that it could, and should, be forced to shut down again due to the pandemic.

But many of the people who are banging the drum for that either don't like sport or don't take into account the immense mental health benefits of watching it.

In fact, there is very much a 'if I can't have what I want, you can't either' approach to it all from some sections on social media.

It is all a bit childish and you feel that there is a lack of consideration for one another - something that has blighted the country at times during this pandemic.

The truth is, being able to watch sport, even if it just on television rather than in person, does so much for someone who loves it.

It provides a much-needed talking point for friends and family during the week.

It provides an escape from watching the news, which is so often doom and gloom.

It fills TV schedules that are otherwise packed with things like Mrs Brown's Boys and endless Mr Bean repeats.

It gives a focus at the end of a week, which, at the moment, is often a struggle to get through for so many.

And while many will say there are far more important things than sport, there are few tools greater for improving the mental wellbeing of a fan who loves to watch a match.

For a few hours at a weekend, someone stuck at home on their own can immerse themselves in sport, alleviating thoughts of the world outside.

It is not about being ignorant, it is about giving your mind a break at a time when it is working overtime, worrying about the present and the future.

The manager of Middlesbrough Football Club, the hugely experienced Neil Warnock, summed it up perfectly when he was asked recently whether his sport needed to take a break.

He said: "I don't think so, no. In the north-east where we are, it needs something like that (football matches) mentally - you've got to have something to look forward to.

"Everything's depressing. Everybody's chin is on the ground. You turn on the news and there's no good news. I love watching the news, I read five or six newspapers a day but it's depressing, isn't it?

"If you're not careful, you can go out and bang your head against a wall.

"We've got to give them (the fans) something that they can look forward to.

"Even if you don't get the right result and they have a moan at your situation and you pick the wrong team and this or that, it gives them something to look forward to."

Some are saying it is morally wrong to keep playing while people are dying.

But how about the people who may die because of the damage done to their mental health.

Let's not forget that suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK.

For those who don't suffer with mental health conditions, that statistic can be hard to understand, they struggle to see what those figures are so high.

But they are that high for a reason, and everything that possibly can be done should be done to try to bring them down.

And while not all men and women like sport, many do, and many use it as a way to distract themselves from daily events.

Fine, some people don't have any interest in it, but this is not about them, this is about those who do.

And if sport can take place safely, which it has already shown it can for many months with regular testing and tight protocols, and it doesn't take anything away from areas of society who need it, and those who play it want to play on, why shouldn't they?

Premiership Rugby had the chance to continue to give its fans a much-needed release, but you feel the calls fell on deaf ears, and quickly at that.

It is especially galling after a weekend on which the league gave several glowing examples of why it is so entertaining and why it is loved so much.

Bath and Wasps, and Harlequins and London Irish, were among the clubs playing out thrilling matches.

Saints may not have been involved, but you can bet many of their fans were, soaking up the action on the TV screens.

And it just feels such a waste not to capitalise on that.

To not build on what is in place and continue to increase viewing figures with the international players available during the next two weeks.

Instead, they will be at home at the weekend after training towards a game that may or may not get played in a couple of weeks' time.

Let us all hope that it can be.

Because we all need something to look forward to, even if, for now at least, it all feels so far away.