Andy Farrell has questioned whether it will be feasible for Ireland to squeeze their two postponed Six Nations games into the same window as three scheduled November internationals later this year.
French sports minister Roxana Maracineanu confirmed yesterday that the meeting of Farrell’s Ireland and France, due to take place next Saturday night, has now been put in cold storage as a result of the escalating coronavirus crisis which has hit the country hard.
Ireland’s tournament had already been hit by the decision to put last Saturday’s game against Italy into cold storage and the complications surrounding this year’s championship are greater again given Italy’s game against England in Rome next weekend has also been scratched.
A Six Nations statement yesterday explained that the round five test between Wales and Scotland in Cardiff is, as things stand, set to go ahead but the fixtures chaos goes even deeper still as Women’s and U20s fixtures have been similarly hit.
Ireland’s Women and U20s are still on course to play their French counterparts, in Lille and Perpignan respectively, later this week but who knows what developments could arise between now and then given the endless variables at play.
All we know for now is that Ireland have two games still to play and such is the importance of the Six Nations to the IRFU, and every other nation involved, that there is no thought being given to the prospect of a line being written through the tournament after this week.
The vast majority of the IRFU’s income stream, 81% of it in the last set of annual accounts, is derived from the international men’s game and the overwhelming majority of that again stems from the Six Nations.
The union here recorded revenue of €87.5m for the year 2018/19 which means over €70m of that came from the men’s national side and, while ticket prices are lower for Italy than any other visitor, it is a game that still accounts for an intake of roughly €5m.
Philip Browne, CEO of the IRFU, has described the Six Nations as the financial engine of the sport more than once but finding space in such a crowded fixture calendar for two test matches is an extraordinarily difficult problem.
There is no prospect of it happening at any point later this season. Ireland return from a two-match tour to Australia in mid-July.
Add in four weeks’ holidays and up to six weeks pre-season after that and it will be the back end of September before the national players play again.
October 24th and 31st have been suggested as the likely dates for rescheduled games but the former is due to be a Heineken Champions Cup weekend and that’s before consideration is even given to the sequence in which games should be played in order to retain the integrity of the tournament.
Add in Farrell’s take and the headache gets worse.
Ireland are already pencilled in to play Australia, South Africa and Japan on successive weekends on November 7th, 14th and 21st. Attach the two Six Nations games to that and they would be playing five test matches against mostly first-grade opposition in just five weekends.
“You see, I don’t know how it’s going to turn out because that would be five games over the autumn,” he pointed out yesterday. “I don’t know whether that’s going to happen. Four is difficult enough, four on the bounce is difficult enough.
“Teams always try to schedule their November for a Tier Two (nation) or whatever which gives a developmental flavour to the November calendar. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We presume one game will be played around that period but we haven’t had anything confirmed.”
Some context is useful here.
Ireland had 14 weeks of pre-season work — and four warm-up games — under their belts before they started last year’s World Cup.
The players would have just or six five weeks — and no games — prep to their names if required to play a Six Nations game in late October.
“I’d look at it,” said Farrell who made it clear that they would ‘like a shot at the title’. “I’d certainly look at it but you’ve got to look at the whole picture of the November calendar from our perspective. We’ve got three really tough games coming up.
[quotes]We’ve got two against Australia and then South Africa, Australia and Japan. It’s a tough old five games and then you’re throwing in what is effectively, hopefully, a semi-final and a final, regarding the Six Nations.[/quotes]
Of equal concern to Farrell and the IRFU is the fact that a chunk of their top players are likely to be called up for the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in the summer of 2021 while Ireland tour the Pacific Islands. There is a determination here not to burn players out before Christmas.
Farrell has already acknowledged that the likely congestion next season could force a rethink in terms of who to bring to Australia this summer but there is little he can do now other than reflect on a highly abnormal start to life as head coach.
The players go their separate ways today, back to provinces who are themselves unsure as to how or when their seasons will progress from here. Munster, Ulster and Connacht have already had games postponed because of the coronavirus.
EPCR, the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup organisers, have confirmed that their quarter-finals are still scheduled to proceed on the weekend of 4th/5th April, while adding that it will continue to monitor developments and liaise with relevant bodies and governments.
Farrell spoke of players gutted and deflated by the inability to atone for that loss to England in Twickenham and push towards a possible championship crown but he was matter-of-fact about any thwarted ambitions himself and mindful of the bigger picture.
Then again, Farrell was a player himself with Wigan when the foot-and-mouth crisis struck Britain and Ireland in 2001. The response among many of his colleagues then was to hit the pub. Different times and, it has to be said too, different stakes.
“Look, I’ve turned up at plenty of matches where it is has been called off. Some of them are delightful. You go around corner in the bus at Workington away and the pitch is absolutely frozen and some of the lads give a cheer on the bus but not this way around. This means a lot.”
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