Finally, after weeks of contingency planning, rugby has a target date for the safe resumption of play.
Shutdown since early March as the Covid-19 pandemic spread through Europe, the IRFU is pinning its hopes on completing the Guinness PRO14 2019-20 season starting with a series of interprovincial derbies at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium beginning on August 22-23.
The target may well move again, IRFU chief executive Philip Browne conceded yesterday as he confirmed its plans in line with those of fellow participants in Italy, Scotland, South Africa and Wales but as much as the governing body needs to get back to competition for the sake of its finances, he said the date would also offer “a beacon of hope” to a sporting nation.
As well as having confidence in a safe return of the sport and the chance to conclude the 2019-20 season at provincial level, Browne also expressed hopes that Ireland will complete its two remaining fixtures in this season’s Six Nations campaign and leap straight into 2020-21 with its annual autumn Guinness Series of Test matches.
With no rugby permitted under the Government’s Roadmap out of lockdown until the final phase, number five, on August 10, the IRFU has been hard at work planning a return to train date for its provincial staffs, coaches and players, all of whom have been stood down since March 20. The protocols for that are being put in place but no date has been confirmed as yet and Browne said if there was disquiet from players who may be uncomfortable returning to training, perhaps due to family concerns, his organisation would seek to “do the right thing” by them.
“We’ll obviously be conscious of any players’ individual circumstances and we always have been so at the end of the day that’s a dialogue that happens locally at provincial level as much as anything else,” Browne said. “We’d be more than conscious of making sure we do the right thing.”
The chief executive also said the governing body was looking into the viability of asking its players to sign waivers, protecting the IRFU from liability, before they return to train and play.
“We have to look at all that sort of stuff. As it is as part of their contract they effectively acknowledge that playing rugby which has some level of inherent risk. To some extent it’s covered already in their contracts but it’s something that we’ll have to look at.”
Browne believes the IRFU has covered all its bases about a safe resumption of the sport at professional level.
“I can tell you we have been working assiduously, with a wide range of experts, in developing our ‘Return to Train and Play’ Protocols. These involved the IRFU’s medical team, external medical advisers, strength and conditioning experts, match staging experts, tournaments - PRO14 and the Aviva Stadium team...
“...Based on these protocols, we have target dates of August 22 and 23 for a return to play with the staging of Guinness PRO14 derby fixtures between the provinces at the Aviva Stadium behind closed doors, as part of the completion of the Guinness PRO14 2019-20 season.
“In these times these matches are not just rugby fixtures, they are a beacon of hope for the entire country. A step, albeit a small one, in Ireland’s opening up to an environment for which the entire country yearns, deserves and has sacrificed so much to win back.
We very much look forward to being able to play our part in delivering this much needed tonic for the country.”
As for the programme for Ireland games this October or November, Browne said it was “too early to say” what the resumption of international rugby would look like.
“We’re looking at a whole variety of options. Nothing has been cast in stone as yet. By and large, what we’re spending the time concentrating on is what sort of number of weekends have we got? And then if we understand the number of weekends we have available then there are many different formats of competitions you can put together, from cup competitions, to Six Nations home and away to goodness knows what.
“The issue is trying to get to a point where we can make some decisions… We have a bit of time, we don’t have to make decisions quite yet.”