There’s never a good time to have a major disruption to fixtures involving a few countries, but one coming in a Rugby World Cup season is going to exacerbate the situation, with Ireland’s Six Nations clash with Italy on Saturday week set to be the first of many games impacted.
The call by Health Minister Simon Harris for the clash at the Aviva Stadium to be postponed has brought the coronavirus firmly into focus.
For the past couple of weeks this has been an issue centred in China, South Korea, and Japan. But by last Friday it was in Italy, now it is in a few other European countries and it’s hardly surprising that it’s having an impact.
With hundreds of people dead — and fatalities in northern Italy now in double digits since Friday — and thousands impacted in lockdown hospitals and towns, it seems churlish to be measuring the impact on sport.
The last time there was a major disruption to sport in Ireland was the foot and mouth crisis in 2001 which led to the cancellation of the Cheltenham Racing Festival and the disruption of the Six Nations.
Back then it was animals and the farming community who were impacted — the likelihood of human fatalities was remote and the crisis passed in due course, with some primary measures taking place.
The serious impact on human life of the coronavirus is obvious and while the primary will be dealing with the immediate health issues, sporting bodies and officials will also have to get to work dealing with the implications of it.
“The very clear view of the public health emergency team is that this game should not go ahead, that it would constitute a significant risk because a very large number of people would be travelling from what is now an affected region,” said Harris.
It would surely by unthinkable for the Six Nations and the IRFU to fly in the face of a country’s health minister and stage an event attracting almost 50,000 when a recommendation has been made to postpone it.
However, in their statement responding to Harris’ remarks last night, the IRFU seemed reluctant to fall into line.
The statement read: “The IRFU is seeking an urgent meeting with Minister Harris as to the specific reasoning behind calling for the cancellation of the Ireland v Italy Six Nations fixture in the context of the Government’s overall travel policy to and from Italy and other affected countries.
“Until such time as the IRFU has had contact with the minister and gets an understanding of the government’s strategic policy on travel to and from Ireland and the cancellation of mass gatherings, it is not in a position to comment further.”
Rugby officials have already had a difficult year accommodating the World Cup. Domestic competitions, including the PRO14, started later to allow teams prepare for Japan and which will run much later into the summer.
That, in turn, will result in the PRO14 not starting next season until towards the end of September, with the calendar realigning itself in time for the start of the 2021-22 season.
But the World Cup in Japan wasn’t without its headaches because of typhoons. Three games, including holders New Zealand against Italy and England’s game with France, were cancelled and declared 0-0 draws.
A few other matches, including hosts Japan against Scotland, only went ahead after getting the all-clear on the morning of the game.
Connacht are due to travel to Italy in March and April, while Munster are scheduled to travel to Treviso on March 27, while Ulster are due to travel to take on Zebre next month.
In addition, Benetton Rugby and Zebre are due to come here for matches against Munster and Leinster.
Benetton Rugby have now had two games called off, with their match in Newport against the Dragons falling by the wayside a couple of weeks ago, while they were meant to host Ulster next weekend.
These games are likely to be played in April, by which time they will have their Italian internationals back on duty.
That, of course, is presuming that the Six Nations is completed by then. If not it will surely impact on Leinster’s and Ulster’s hopes in the Heineken Champions Cup in April.
Munster defence coach JP Ferreira yesterday raised the prospect of PRO14 postponed games being declared 0-0 draws. The impact then on qualification for the knockout stages, not to mention next year’s Heineken Champions Cup, could be significant.
And, of course, as always with an international health issue, there is just no way of predicting when the crisis will be brought under control.
What is quite obvious, though, from Harris’ intervention yesterday is that the coronavirus has now become an issue for Ireland and that the Italian game is set to become the first of many impacts it has on sport and Irish life.
Meanwhile, Connacht held an emergency meeting yesterday as they prepared to travel to South Africa.
Connacht fly out today, via London and Johannesburg, for Sunday’s clash against the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth and are taking every precaution.
“It is obviously very, very serious but we are getting good medical advice,” said Connacht coach Andy Friend.
“We are getting good advice as to what we need to be doing to be as cautious as we can. We will follow all of that advice.
“We actually talked about wearing masks this morning. Is that something that we are going to need to do? But at this point in time we haven’t had that advice.
“The game is slightly affected by it, in that we had an Italian referee who was going to be refereeing us. He won’t be travelling now so we are going to get a local referee.
“But with the Zebre and Benetton games being postponed this weekend it is going to start to become a pretty full calendar.”