Without gate-takings – for some clubs this equates to roughly 40 per cent of their revenue – and money raised from functions, tough decisions are being made as all 11 teams cross their fingers that the year won’t go completely to waste.
Parsons won’t put a date on a return because the SRU is taking health advice plus instructions from Rugby Australia but competition formats over eight, 10, 12, and 16-week periods have been drawn up by club officials.
“If we can’t run a full comp, we can test new formats to provide some entertaining games,” Parsons told The Sydney Morning Herald. “We certainly believe we will have a window of opportunity before Christmas to play rugby and we’ve got no shortage of ideas on how that may look.
“We could run a competition in eight weeks. We might even try to modify some rules. What we’re waiting for is this terrible time in history to end.”
Amid the uncertainty, there is flexibility about how a Sydney rugby competition could take shape.
Clubs agree they would need about three weeks to get ready for a new competition but there is no guarantee all the usual suspects will be there. West Harbour and Southern Districts have already paused their rugby operations, while others are struggling financially due to dried-up revenue streams.
“I’m not comfortable we’d end up with a full roster of clubs,” Parsons said. “I think the longer it drags out, the more financial pressure it puts on clubs, and their ability to be ready would be impeded. Maybe with some help from our broadcast deal and others we could help them build teams.
“We would be looking for some sort of financial support to put those games on without spectators and we’ve been in meaningful discussions with Rugby Australia and NSW Rugby about that already.”
A truncated competition could include invitational teams. Parsons likes the idea of a Polynesian team squaring off against a best-of-the-rest XV.
Playing rounds over three different days – Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays – has been suggested, while scheduling more regular derbies, such as Manly versus Warringah, could increase engagement in a shorter window. Anything to provide content for clubs and broadcaster Channel Seven.
“This is a great opportunity for us to test great models and new structures,” Parsons said. “We’re well placed to go into 2021.”
Rule changes are being tossed around. Some ideas include shot clocks for scrums, that teams must contest lineouts to win a penalty (when a throw is not straight) and scrum penalties can only be awarded to the defending team for better game flow (tap and run).
While there has been tension between Shute Shield clubs in the past, there is now a common goal to brainstorm ways of creating content.
“Speaking as the president of the [Warringah] Rats, we’d play up to Christmas Eve,” Parsons said. “Our community is busting for an opportunity to get together.
“The clubs are absolutely aligned. The conversations between the presidents, general managers and administration at Rugby Australia and NSW Rugby is the best I’ve ever seen it. We have a single purpose that is to get rugby back.”
Clubs are behind the eight ball because of a loss of game-day revenue, sponsorship dollars and memberships, as well as expenditure that has already been paid for the season ahead, like ground hire and training gear.
Sydney University and Randwick are two of many clubs encouraging their respective rugby families to support sponsors, who have varying degrees of hardship as a result of COVID-19.
Some major sponsors are RSL clubs, whose own budgets have been tightened due to being shut down.
Six weeks ago, the Shute Shield, according to one club official, was the “hottest property in Australian rugby”. RA’s commitment to take over the broadcast rights will see the SRU receive $1.45 million over five years.
If a new competition can be formed, the weekly game-day functions and all-important money spinners that are corporate lunches will be weaved into the calendar to improve bottom lines.
While morale is low, many in the rugby fraternity are clinging to the hope that a post-coronavirus world will breathe more life into community sport as society comes out of its slumber and enjoys the simple pleasures of going to the footy on a Saturday afternoon.
Tom Decent is a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald