Battered and bruised, rugby can reset both at home and abroad

Rugby Union has not hit a fork in the road like the one it faces now since the move to professionalism in 1996.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the globe and countries go into a virtual lockdown, only a handful of domestic sporting competitions continue to play on.

From the suspension of the major European domestic leagues and the Six Nations up north, to Super Rugby down south, and all forms of grassroots rugby on either side of the equator, rugby has ground to a complete halt.

As national unions scramble with cost-cutting measures - Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby reducing staffing as executives take pay cuts of up to 50 percent - and strategic regional alliances are momentarily shifted to the side as a result, there is one word that keeps popping up amid the COVID-19 carnage: Reset.

After 24 years of professionalism, amid a complete playing shutdown, rugby has the chance to pause, take stock, and then map out exactly what kind of sport it wants to be. A complete reset, if you will.

Former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has mentioned it, while various officials across the southern hemisphere's big three have also spoken of the opportunities that could lie within this almighty global challenge.

But it will take cross-border and hemisphere collaboration like never before, and seek it only months after the Six Nations brushed aside the chance to unite international rugby and instead ultimately safeguarded their own longer-term financial security.

World Rugby's attempt to form an annual Nations Championship may have amounted to nothing in 2018 when Six Nations powerbrokers opted for the private equity route. But news that that same CVC investment group has now also held talks with NZ Rugby and the South African Rugby Union suggests the game was already edging towards an overhaul.

The coronavirus pandemic may just expedite it.

And World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper knows it.

"Private equity is a reality," Gosper said late last month. "We are where we are. [World Rugby] has to deal with reality in the most constructive way...there's an understanding that CVC are an investor in the sport and a supporter of important member unions of ours. Therefore, it's best that we work together with them where possible rather than be in a situation that we're not in dialogue."

It might just be that private equity becomes rugby's saving grace.

News earlier this week that USA Rugby - admittedly a small player -- had filed for bankruptcy should serve as an added warning to World Rugby, if it needed one at all, that the game will continue to come under increased financial strain. The longer the pandemic goes on, the harder it will be for Unions to stay afloat.

World Rugby has already established a process whereby Unions can apply for financial assistance, but as to exactly what level of support they are able to offer - particularly if further Unions are forced down the same path as USA Rugby - remains to be seen.

CVC, meanwhile, have clearly recognized that to maximise its earning potential - specifically striking a deal for rugby's broadcast rights to an online streaming giant like Amazon - any potential package would have to include New Zealand and South Africa.

Taking a slate of rights to market that excluded the All Blacks would be akin to cooking a roast lamb without the lamb itself. And as current world champions, the Springboks' absence would be like that same roast lamb sans gravy.

It would be a largely inferior product, and a taste no rugby fan could truly savour.

It may be that the coronavirus brings an annual league - and even a uniform global season - back to the table.

Just where that could leave domestic and provincial competitions is uncertain, but perhaps this is the time when rugby shrinks on the home front; a time when it returns to its tribal roots and, specifically in the southern hemisphere, calls time on Super Rugby.

Rugby Australia chief Raelene Castle on Monday refused to guarantee the future of the country's four Super Rugby sides and also hinted that the rugby calendar was unlikely to look like it does now come 2021.

New Zealand and South Africa could both reinvigorate their Mitre 10 and Currie Cup competitions - both of which have drifted from prominence first through the rise of Super Rugby, and then the global player market - and while Australia would have to come up with some sort of new national tournament -- certainly one that resonates with supporters more than the current National Rugby Championship -- the interest in club competitions like the Shute Shield has scarcely been higher.

Having bona-fide Wallabies playing regularly at suburban grounds under the Saturday afternoon sun would surely only kick a reimagined domestic competition up to another level.

Even with a healthy cash injection from CVC, a breakdown in the SANZAAR alliance would likely leave significant financial holes which individual Unions would themselves need to plug. And that could prove difficult.

There would also be the possibility that players would head offshore in greater numbers. If Australian players are asked to take pay cuts of between 30 and 50 percent, as indicated, could anyone really begrudge an individual from seeking a better deal offshore, in say Japan?

That is of course overlooking the fact that the Japanese Top League has already shut down and many foreign players have returned home. Who knows when- and in what form- the Japanese Top League could return?

And if this global crisis has taught us anything it's that many sporting leagues, alliances and teams - save for the absolute giants of the world like FIFA and the NFL - have been living beyond their means with no real rainy-day fund at the ready.

That's why rugby's future might be tied to a retraction on the domestic front, coupled with the greatest international collaboration since the game first went pro.

The coronavirus pandemic will likely result in further dark times for the sport in the near future, but it will emerge from the other side at some point, too.

Perhaps setting course for a better, brighter new rugby world in the process.