With sporting and cultural events scheduled well into the summer now being cancelled or postponed, it is all too clear that Irish rugby’s current shutdown is set to extend beyond the current March 29 cut-off.
As governments strive to flatten the curve of Covid-19 coronavirus cases, estimates are varying from country to country as to when they will start to see new cases begin to fall in number.
That makes it difficult to predict when any sporting activity will resume in domestic leagues, let alone cross-border competitions which will not be able to restart until the final participant is cleared for action.
One thing seems certain: The longer the season remains on hiatus, the more likely will be the need for a pre-season period within the campaign, further delaying any resumption in terms of actual games.
Even if the Guinness PRO14 was to return, as is still the intention, for Round 16 matches starting on Good Friday, April 10, that would mean a six-week lay-off for Connacht, Leinster, and Munster, whose last games were on the weekend of
February 28 to March 1.
Ulster have not played since February 22, when they faced the Cheetahs at home in Belfast, their game the following week against Benetton in Treviso having been
postponed ahead of the general rugby shut down due to the seriousness of the situation in northern Italy.
The PRO14 is expected today to make an announcement laying out the measures it believes will have to be in place for the league to resume.
There can be no hard and fast contingency plans worth making public at this stage with so much uncertainty surrounding this pandemic, but they will not be alone as a professional rugby competition in needing to set out the conditions for a return to action in terms of being able to guarantee the health and wellbeing of players, supporters, and all matchday staff.
One of the first hurdles that will need to be agreed is consensus on the length of a suitable pre-season programme period.
Players are going to need to come off the individual fitness programmes they were given by their coaches when group training was suspended and social distancing measures introduced.
They will need time to reintegrate with their club-mates and resume full squad sessions in terms of attaining match readiness.
Provincial rugby players may be professional athletes but the lack of game time will mean there is inevitably some muscle mass and aerobic fitness to regain.
The main question to be considered when the leagues and unions continue their conversations about a return to action and have shared all their available information is the length of that pre-season in terms of weeks.
When the PRO14 does resume, the two South African teams, the Cheetahs and Southern Kings may have been able to steal a march on their rivals if their country’s governing body gets its way.
SA Rugby yesterday announced it was exploring various interim playing options for its professional franchises in both Super Rugby and the PRO14.
There are plans to restructure local rugby competitions that could see their franchises and other provincial teams return to a new, locally-based derby competition while both the Super Rugby and the PRO14 campaigns are suspended.
SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux yesterday confirmed the national rugby body is in ongoing discussions with its stakeholders about a number of models that could be implemented for competitive rugby to resume in-country.
“SA Rugby is currently evaluating all our competition structures, with a view to restructuring it in the interim so that we are able to afford game time to all our franchise and provincial teams,” Roux said.
“Obviously, nothing can happen in the next few weeks until the ‘period of social distancing’, as instructed by President Cyril Ramaphosa, has lapsed.
“We are considering local derby matches between our South African teams. We must still drill into the specifics, but we are confident we will be able to put a feasible plan on the table that will be suitable for everyone.
“These are extraordinary times which call for extraordinary measures and it also offers us an opportunity to be innovative.
“We are working closely with our broadcast partner, SuperSport, and other important stakeholders and will announce plans once we are in a position to do so.”