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The Breens layout what the 2021 season might look like as the COVID pandemic wears on!

Well, here we are in 2021 and unfortunately still in the grips of the Global pandemic. As we enter March, most teams would usually be planning their last few Sunday practices before the start of the BAFA season. However, for the second year running this is not the case and some have not hit the practice field in the last year and no one has played a competitive game since around August/September 2019. There has been a small light at then end of the tunnel with the latest announcement from the UK government road map suggesting outdoor sports may be allowed to begin by the end of March. Without much inner knowledge of all the details that date does seem to be slightly premature for the beginning of up to 50 people training together and would almost certainly not signal the start of contact training. Add to that the announcement from the Scottish Government that appears to suggest that it will be a further month behind, the BAFA 2021 season will be anything but straight forward.

While there are multiple formats of the game including Adult Contact, Women’s, Youth and Junior and flag. Adult contact is most likely to be affected in the biggest way. I would expect tournament days that have been the previous setup for formats such as the Women’s and Youth and Junior setups are something that could proceed largely as normal later in the year, providing that all is safe to do so and teams have the appropriate time to prepare.

So, with that in mind let us look at what the potential season could look like.

Adult Contact

One outlook currently doing the rounds is looking at a potential season start date of the 27th of June, with regular season games wrapping up by the 25th of September and finals being held on the 30th of October. This would give a much shorter window for the season to be completed, given the usual is the middle of April until the Beginning of August for regular season games with the finals being held at the start of September. Effectively this reduces the season window by around a month and that creates its own problems.

The first problem is that this is a long forecast in an unpredictable pandemic and the likelihood is it is very optimistic. That means that any sort of set back is likely to throw the whole situation into chaos leaving the entire season in ruins. In a truncated season with such high unpredictability, it is highly likely that a few games could end up being cancelled or delayed with no chance to reschedule with no time scale to allow it. Adding to that, teams may find it difficult to book pitches for their games due to short notice, density of games and any potential clashes with Rugby seasons that may take place.

A second issue on the list is of course Scotland. Assuming it maintains around 4 weeks behind in terms of the easing of restrictions, the teams in Scotland will either have 4 weeks less preseason (in what is already expected to be only 10 weeks) and the potential of not being able to begin their season until the same length of time after the beginning of the season in the rest of the UK. Only 6 weeks of a pre-season would be hard enough, let alone given the length of the time that many players have been without practice or a competitive game. This would also leave almost no time for any bye weeks, leaving teams in Scotland to play their entire season back-to-back. Couple the two things together and the likelihood of a full complete and safe season becomes almost immediately impossible.

The next problem that comes to mind with a shortened season becomes the availability of officials. This is an ongoing issue even during a regular length season. Simply put there are not enough people to officiate all the games at the best of times and crews spread thin. The massive reduction in timescale would involve heavy game loaded weekends and the likelihood of multiple games having to self-officiate. While this solution works in small numbers, its not ideal and would be hard to constitute a safe season with Several games a week being completed without trained officials.

Finally running a season later in the year will have knock on effect on the University season. Given that Uni ball may be the first real opportunity for a normal season, perhaps it is not the best idea to impact that negatively as well.

Assuming all the above is either fixable or deemed acceptable risk, the season could potentially go ahead as planned. However, given the extent of the potential issues facing the prospect being discussed, there certainly will need to be a list of backup plans.

So, what are some of the possible solutions?

One option I floated in my article last year (What will happen to the Adult Season after the chaos of Covid-19) when we still had hope of some semblance of a season was the half-way there. A year in which Prem and Division 1 teams play 5 games each and Division 2 teams play 4 Games. There was some Criticism thrown at this idea last year since it meant that certain teams would have to travel a lot further than others, in a season where a head-to-head could dictate promotion or relegation. However, when the best-case scenario may be a 14-week window for the season, a condensed regular season may well be the best solution.

Another Option that I proposed in the article from last year referenced above was a method in which the season could be completed in the shortest time possible, whereby the regular season required up to 5 Game weeks including Playoffs for the Premier Division and 6 weeks for Division one and Division 2. However, this solution drew criticism both for the inconsistency of travel with regards to who teams would play home and away as well as the suggestion that Division 2 play more games than the top 2 tiers. Some teams have regrettably had to cease operations due to the pandemic and whilst disappointing, it may provide an opportunity to schedule a D2 season with 3 regular season games also before playoff games commence. Perhaps a way to ease the concerns of some teams travel issues with regards to must win games being played away from home, perhaps eliminating promotion and relegation for this season would be the best way to appease organisations.

Given the varying degrees and speeds of the reduction in restrictions across the UK there is a possible solution of a regional based season. Whereby the usual set up is set aside for one year and teams are allocated into Geographical divisions, for example there could be a Scottish League. There would likely have to be some sort of split however as the idea of a New team facing off against the Premiership Talent of the Edinburgh Wolves is not the kind of idea that I would suggest is sensible. Perhaps a two-tier system. This solution would significantly reduce travel and keep teams as local as possible whilst maintaining a competitive balance. Doing this across the UK would also allow for seasons in different areas to start a couple of weeks later depending on when restrictions are lifted.

All these solutions allow for some sort of season to take place in yet another year where everything is far from predictable. We should remember that the most important part for any organisation should always be the health and safety of its members and as such, all possible solutions must be on the table including the prospect of no 2021 season but allowing an increased membership period that covers for this year and next year to allow teams more time to prepare for 2022 as well as fit a few friendly games towards the end of the year when it is safe to do so.

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