World Rugby’s chief medical officer Dr Éanna Falvey expects to see competitive rugby resume before the end of 2020.
In Ireland, the return of close physical contact sports like rugby, boxing, and wrestling is permitted in phase five of the government’s roadmap to easing restrictions, with an estimated return date of August 10.
The former Munster, Ireland, and Lions team doctor, who co-authored World Rugby’s return-to-play guidelines, told he was disappointed that rugby was categorised in a later phase to Gaelic games and soccer, which can resume from July 20, without evidence of rugby being a higher risk sport for transmitting Covid-19.
"I would be very surprised if there isn’t some competitive rugby before the end of the year," said Falvey.
"I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t quite a bit of competitive rugby and I would say that we are probably going to get cleverer in how we can monitor players.
"We’re at a very early stage in this, and as the testing gets better it may well be that we can be a lot surer about how disease-free squads are, and if you can get teams together and limit the exposure, you may well be able to have quite a good deal of competitive rugby with a very low risk. And this is about mitigating risk. That’s the primary objective."
Falvey expects to see countries like Australia and New Zealand return first, with a pre-season of around four weeks required to get players up to speed.
On the separate categorisation of rugby to other field sports like Gaelic games and soccer, Falvey said: "I was actually quite disappointed to see rugby was categorised with judo and wrestling in the Irish guidelines, and separated from Gaelic football and soccer.
"Basically, without getting too pedantic about it, the term “contact” is used in epidemiology, by the WHO, and what contact means is whether or not you have been exposed to an infected person.
"Basically this means being in close proximity, because the data out there to date is around aerosol droplet spread – it’s not actually about physical contact if that makes sense. But we use the word contact in the epidemiology sense of the word, and I think that has bled into sport where it’s been conflated with the term physical contact. And what we’re looking at here is that we’re trying to tease the two of those out.
"In rugby, probably the area for us which is going to equate to the highest risk would be the scrum/maul/ruck, and the rest then is very low because you’ve got lines facing each other rather than being in full contact.
"The scenario that involves the head-to-head, and the head being in similar positions for the longest, up to a minute, is the scrum. At the moment in international rugby I think the norm is about 12 scrums per game. We see front-rows being substituted after 60 minutes, so you’re looking at your average front-row doing something like seven or eight scrums per game. So even if every scrum took a minute you’d be looking perhaps at seven to eight minutes of high-risk contact in that scenario. Our analysts are also looking at mauls and rucks.
"There is an assumption that rugby has a far higher risk than Gaelic football or soccer does. But we don’t actually know that and that’s something we’re looking at."