Charlie Beckett Column: Players are desperate to get back to normality

Charlie Beckett started his season with Jersey in the Championship
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The 2019/20 Gallagher Premiership season has finished. Let me repeat that again, the 2019/20 Gallagher Premiership season has finished.

Now, normally, a season merely reaching its conclusion would not be noteworthy in any shape or form, it is simply what is to be expected, but as we all know, the 2019/20 season has been anything but normal. Let me run you through some of the ‘not normal’ things that have happened in the men’s Premiership in 2019/20…

The season started in September 2019 and ended in October 2020, that’s a 13-month season, the longest in Premiership history. Defending champions Saracens were relegated, there was a five month break in games from March to August and from August onwards, games were played in empty stadiums. 

Away from the men’s Premiership, there was plenty of strange happenings as well. From March onwards, all grassroots rugby was cancelled along with the men’s Championship and women’s Premiership. Super Rugby was cancelled and replaced with domestic competitions in the individual countries whilst multiple international tours were cancelled and the Six Nations, which started in February, still hasn’t finished!

On a personal note, I started my season in August 2019, in Moscow, playing a pre-World Cup warm up game against Russia for Jersey Reds and finished it in September 2020, at Sandy Park, playing in the Premiership for Gloucester.

I don’t think I’ll ever have such a drastic difference in my start and end to a season ever again!

Obviously all the odd happenings I have mentioned above, with the exception of Saracens' relegation, are due to the COVID-19 pandemic and while it has affected sports hugely, I am well aware that pales into insignificance compared to the impact the pandemic has had on the wider world.

Over a million people have died and millions more have been incredibly ill. Economies have been ravaged, hospitals and health systems overrun, and people haven’t been able to see their loved ones. Grandparents haven’t been able to meet new grandchildren, partners haven’t been able to get married, and families haven’t been able to give their loved ones a proper funeral and say a proper goodbye.

This pandemic is horrifying. It will change the world we live in forever, and while at times we may think our sport is the most important thing in the world right now, we have to remember, it really is not. 

However, it is important. Sport in general is important. It brings so much joy to so many people, and with everything that’s going in the world right now, making each other happy has never been more important. So many people worked so hard behind the scenes to get professional sport back up and running in England and for that we will never be able to thank them enough. Cricket was first, then football, and then finally, after what seemed like an age, professional rugby was back!

Fans could finally sit and watch their favourite teams do battle once more, and players could finally get back on the pitch and bash lumps out of each other for 80 minutes again. I was one of the extremely fortunate few who got to do that, and I thought I’d tell you a bit about what it was like, behind the scenes, playing during the pandemic.

Firstly let me say I am fully aware that so many of you reading this will be desperate to get back down to your local club and get playing competitive games again. That fact is not lost on me. I fully appreciate how lucky I have been to be able to play these last few months and I have everything crossed that we can all get back to playing rugby safely very, very soon, no matter what level we play at.

The reason we could get back to playing in the men’s Premiership was that the clubs could afford to pay for weekly COVID testing, and that was the biggest difference to our regular weekly schedule. Once a week, a man or woman would arrive at the club and shove a swab down your throat and up your nose. Some were gentle and made the experience as painless as possible, some though, I swear they got some sort of sick sadistic kick out of making it as uncomfortable as possible, trying to tickle your lungs or touch your brain every time they tested you. It really was not fun.

Aside from the testing, there were a lot of other changes around the training ground. Not being able to use the changing rooms or showers during 'Phase One' led to some rather smelly car journeys home and the huge foghorns going off every 15 minutes in training to signify we all needed to sanitise our hands never stopped surprising me. I genuinely think I almost had a heart attack every single time.

Gym sessions in masks and plastic gloves made me feel like I was Dexter Morgan preparing the kill room for my next victim and line-out sessions in masks led to some ‘slight’ communication issues between callers and hookers in particular.

There were loads of minor things that were different. One way systems throughout the training ground, not hugging each other or shaking hands in the morning and not hanging around after training for a coffee and a chat, but these things were all fairly minor when looking at the bigger picture. Nothing was really an issue, they were a ‘slight inconvenience’ at the most. We were incredibly lucky to be training and playing and all that is down to so many people doing so many great things behind the scenes as I mentioned earlier.

The one thing that wasn’t minor however, was the empty stadiums. Plenty has been written by plenty of people far more intelligent than me all about the financial impact the empty stadiums will have on clubs and the game and therefore I’m not going to talk about that. I’m a people person, so I want to talk about people. I want to talk about you, the fans. I know you’re hurting, I know you miss those Friday nights and Saturday or Sunday afternoons, pint in hand, cheering on your team from the stands. Believe me, we, the players, miss you too.

I miss you too.

I miss that roar of sheer joy as one of us (not me, it’s never me) crosses the whitewash to score five points. I miss hearing the brilliant banter between two sets of opposing fans and hearing that eery silence created by 20,000 people holding their breath as a kicker lines up his attempt at the posts, both of which are unique to rugby. I miss your cheers, your boos, your jests and your applause. I miss you more than you understand.

Mostly though, I miss interacting with you after games. I miss our conversations about the game, what we did well and what we could do better. I miss your smiles, your laughs and even your ‘constructive criticism’ and post game analysis. I miss knowing that next week, no matter how well or badly your team played today, you’ll be back, and we will get to do it all over again.

Fans are the heartbeat of any and every club, they are the reason clubs exist, and I cannot wait to see you all back cheering on your sides. I know it’s frustrating to say the least right now. The inconsistencies between some events being allowed spectators and some not is infuriating.

I am as desperate like all of you for sports fans to be allowed back in stadiums, both so I can see you after games as I discussed above but also so I can get to Anfield and watch my beloved Liverpool again soon. As much as I am a player in rugby, when it comes to football I am just another frustrated fan. Like you, I am desperate to be able to cheer on my team and not have to settle for only being able to watch through a screen.

But until we can go back, until we are allowed, please stay safe.

Let’s be honest, this year has been horrid. We are all hurting and all desperate to get back to some sort of normality as soon as we possibly can. I truly believe though, the only way we get through this is together. We all have to muck in and make a positive difference wherever we can.

So please, do your bit, no matter how big or small, and when the time is right, the first round is on me.

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