Donal Lenihan: Irish rugby's roadmap to return taking shape

Donal Lenihan: Irish rugby's roadmap to return taking shape
Murray Douglas arrives to be temperature tested ahead of a Brumbies Super Rugby training session at Brumbies HQ on May 12, 2020 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Rohan Thomson/Getty Images)

Confusion reigns. Whether it was the Leaving Cert exams, the intercounty championships or the resumption of collective training for a variety of sports, the ground rules change on a daily basis.

It’s a very challenging time for the thousands of young men and women preparing for the biggest exam of their lives but at least they now have clarity in respect of the Leaving and a road map to what happens next. Hopefully they will be able to look back on this space in 12 months time in the knowledge that things worked out all right in the end.

Sport plays a vital role in the mental wellbeing of both it’s participants and the wider audience. It helps to lift the spirits. At present it’s the uncertainty surrounding what’s going to happen on a number of fronts over the coming weeks and months that’s impacting most on people’s thought process.

That is why the government's action plan for a phased return to some form of normality was so welcome last week. I know from my own involvement on the club rugby scene that the capacity for groups of four to train together, while observing social distancing, offered a huge boost. It was a chink of light with the target of expanding the parameters on a phased basis in July and August.

The GAA authorities threw a spanner in the works for their members when making the call to suspend opening their pitches to facilitate such activities until July 20th. All of a sudden the thrill of being able to have a puck around between a few team mates was whisked away. Legitimate concerns surrounding how that practice was going to be policed are well founded and something that all rugby clubs will have to monitor closely.

It’s not widely appreciated that the aspects of the government plan relating to sport revolve around the amateur game. From a professional rugby perspective, the IRFU has been in direct weekly contact with the relevant authorities in government as they endeavour to cope with the fallout of having so many games at provincial and international level postponed.

Right now, the respective unions on this side of the world are playing a watching game. With the five Super Rugby franchises in New Zealand - the Crusaders, Hurricanes, Auckland Blues, Warren Gatland’s Waikato Chiefs and the Highlanders - set to play against each other behind closed doors in a league format commencing June 13th, the watching brief will not so much be on the games but on how they are staged and what the potential fallout might be.

There will be a clear focus on how these teams train and interact off the training paddock, manage the gym and the dressing room and on their subsequent integration with family and close friends away from the day job.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has impressed so many people at home and abroad with her handling of crisis situations. While accepting that New Zealand’s borders are a bit easier to police, she has led a remarkable effort in curtailing the Coronavirus.

Think back to the way she reached out and reacted to the horrific attacks on two mosques in Christchurch in 2019 when a lone gunman killed 51 people, injuring 49 more, and you begin to understand what being a stately or presidential leader looks like. Donald Trump could learn so much from Ardern.

By deciding to close their borders early, New Zealand has managed to curtail the number of positive Coronavirus cases to around 1500 with only 21 fatalities to date. There is a big fear of the unknown in returning to sport too soon, something players are very much aware of.

Across the Tasman sports mad Australia is also ready to dip its toes back into professional sports with Rugby League’s NRL, Australian Rules and their Super Rugby sides all preparing for a resumption of activities.

The NRL is setting a target return date of May 28th but has met some resistance from their players with a number refusing to take the flu vaccine which is deemed mandatory before they can commence training and playing. It will be interesting to see what the fallout will be from their stance. Their Super Rugby teams are targeting a return date of July 4th while closer to home, the German Bundesliga resumes next weekend, again behind closed doors.

The IRFU’s return to play pathway is very similar to that of the New Zealand franchises. While originally targeting May 18th as a potential date for the provinces to commence some form of collective training, the IRFU announced on Monday night that they are pushing out that date.

The plan now is for the provincial squads to commence a phased program of collective training from June 1st but a lot of issues have yet to be ironed out. The players representative body, Rugby Players Ireland, has been briefing its members of the risks and issues involved.

That element is highlighted by the fact that players will be asked to sign a document accepting the risk posed by the virus, not only to themselves but to their families and others they interact with on a daily basis. While all the players are keen to get back to competitive action on the field, its not clear on what basis they are prepared to do so.

With their high performance unit at the University of Limerick currently being used by the health authorities, Munster plan to become self sufficient and carry out all their training and preparation in isolation at Thomond Park.

Starting in mini groups of four, with no players in the same position placed in the same pod, the provinces will start with weights and fitness work before building up to controlled contact through pad work. 

After that they will work towards training as two separate teams doing unopposed work before progressing to full contact situations three weeks prior to any live games.

The hope is for a series of inter provincial doubleheaders to take place at the Aviva Stadium on successive Saturdays in August to be broadcast live on radio and television. With 40% of the Guinness PRO14 fixture schedule outstanding, it is hoped that these games will reduce any potential clawback of monies paid by the broadcasters in lieu of the large quantity of games lost. The WRU are hoping to stage similar PRO14 derbies in Wales.

There is even the possibility of a restricted crowd being able to attend in a manner that would comply with social distancing. While these games won’t be massive money spinners, it will not only offer the broadcasters something for their viewers to feast on but will enable players in the international squad get back to match fitness with a view towards playing a number of internationals sometime in the September-November window.

The IRFU needs clarification, by July at the latest, for a return to action with a view towards playing the two postponed Six Nations games against Italy and France in September/October. With the two test tour to Australia in July certain to be cancelled soon, there’s an outside possibility that it could be rescheduled for the end of September. This would necessitate the players having to isolate for 14 days on their arrival in Australia before playing against the Wallabies.

Last week CEO of the RFU, Bill Sweeney, made it absolutely clear that not having any internationals over the remainder of this calendar year would be catastrophic with losses estimated anywhere between £80-100m. The IRFU are equally concerned and have indicated that without test rugby this year, they may well have to shut down operations by October.

World Rugby’s chief medical officer Eanna Falvey, a man with a better insight on Irish sport than most, caught many by surprise when declaring last week that he was fairly certain there would be competitive rugby at provincial and international level before the year end. That must have been music to the ears of Sweeney and his IRFU counterpart Philip Browne. The problem with all this is, if one player tests positive for Covid-19 after one of the proposed inter-provincials, both match day squads will be required to self isolate for 14 days. That is why, when games commence in New Zealand and Australia, the off pitch developments will be watched with far greater zeal by the authorities over here than the games themselves.

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