How will rugby sort out the pending fixture pile-up?

There will be a time, hopefully in the not too distant future when rugby’s administrators will look back on the decision to shut down their sport due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic as the easy part, writes Simon Lewis

There will be a significant backlog of games to be played after the coronavirus pandemic has receded.
There will be a significant backlog of games to be played after the coronavirus pandemic has receded.

Getting professional rugby started again when the dust has settled and we can all return to some form of normality after this period of unprecedented public health-related restrictions will be an altogether more complicated process.

Monday’s separate announcements to postpone the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals and suspend the English Premiership season completed the indefinite shutdown of professional rugby in this part of the world, leaving players with individual fitness programmes and supporters with no live sport to watch.

The decisions were followed by pledges to deliver satisfactory conclusions to the campaigns now on hiatus, all with the caveat that to make that happen, spectator health as well as that of the protagonists would have to be central to any decision to resume competitive rugby.

Just what happens when the red light turns green and play is able to restart remains very much up in the air, however.

Different unions have suspended rugby activity for different periods of time.

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The IRFU has followed current Irish government guidelines and brought a halt to all activity until March 29, European Professional Club Rugby has postponed its April 3-5 Champions and Challenge cup quarter-finals while the Guinness PRO14 season is set to resume on April 10 but the English game will be in lockdown for five weeks until April 14.

Even if the PRO14 does resume on that target date, it will mean five rounds of play will have been lost with three further rounds to complete before the play-offs.

By comparison, EPCR’s commitment to completing its schedule seems like a walk in the park. Of its 67 total matches to find Europe’s champion club, there are just seven knockout games to negotiate, four quarters, two semi-finals and a final, set for May 23.

Yet the open-ended situation presented by this pandemic means there is little any sporting organisation can do in the way of planning for a resumption and EPCR is as compromised as any league in that respect, both it and the PRO14 further complicated by their cross-border elements.

With two teams from Ireland, three from England and two from France still in the Champions Cup last eight and fixtures scheduled for all three countries you have three different governmental approaches to the current crisis and there will be three separate public health boxes to tick before EPCR can contemplate rearranging the quarters.

The competition organisers will need green lights in all three jurisdictions before they can ask clubs to even start planning travel to the respective venues in Dublin, Exeter, Toulouse, and Clermont-Ferrand.

Similarly in the PRO14, where five unions are represented.

So how will rugby sort out the pending fixture pile-up? The consensus appears that there is little appetite to see matches played behind closed doors.

The foremost priority is to get to a place where leagues and competitions can stage matches in a way that satisfies the health and safety of all players, home and away, club personnel, stadium matchday staff, and supporters while also being free of restrictions on movement between countries and local measures banning mass gatherings.

By then there will doubtless be a healthy appetite for getting back to normal, both resuming playing and coaching careers and attending live sport or watching it on television.

That places an onus on the administrators to make sure they’re ready to go with a coherent plan to get rugby back on the agenda.

Also to be considered are the competing elements within rugby. With four postponed men’s Guinness Six Nations fixtures to rearrange, and summer Test series and tours still, as it stands, to negotiate, as well as the regular season club competitions to complete, it is no wonder one administrative insider put it as being “like starting a massive jigsaw without any of the edge pieces”.

There is currently no starting point where you can map out a straight-edge border and work inwards from because everything remains up in the air and there is no indication yet of when the picture will become clearer.

Yet no-one in rugby’s head offices will be sitting on their hands. We are assured that every single option and idea is being looked at and stress-tested as the sport, like the rest of us waits to learn where we will be with Covid-19, be it in four or 14 weeks.

There will be a time, hopefully in the not too distant future when rugby’s administrators will look back on the decision to shut down their sport due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic as the easy part.

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