IRFU plan gives club rugby hope of return to action this year
Clubs could conceivably return to training in small groups from next Monday, June 8th
Tullamore and Bangor in action last February during an AIL match. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
The IRFU have announced what amounts to the first tentative, but potentially critical, steps toward a return to play at club level by publishing a ‘Summary Roadmap’ to all 217 clubs under its watch.
Irish rugby is currently in the Covid-19 Safety Planning Stage of its roadmap, and to that end all honorary secretaries were issued with guidelines last Friday.
Chief among the Union’s recommendations were the appointment of a Covid-19 Club Safety Officer “to oversee public health measures in the club” and Covid-19 Club Compliance Officers, who will be asked “to monitor day-to-day compliance with protocols across all teams”, in each and every club.
Despite the June Bank Holiday weekend, clubs have been asked to submit the names of safety officers and compliance officers by next Friday, although the Union will clearly have to show a degree of flexibility about this as there’s no way on earth all 217 will respond that speedily.
The Union’s statement added: “Clubs will be guided through the process of completing a Covid-19 Club Risk Assessment and a Covid-19 Club Safety Plan to outline safety measures and minimize the risk of Covid-19 transmission.”
The Union said a range of training and education supports will be available to guide clubs through this stage.
Speaking about the plan, IRFU Director of Rugby Development Colin McEntee said: “The fact remains we can only resume activity in line with the easing of government restrictions, but there is also a lot we can do to ensure the right practices are in place. Many clubs are already looking at revised operating procedures. This plan is about helping all clubs move forward as one in providing health and wellbeing opportunities for their community.
“I’m hopeful our clubs can rise to the challenge. The support will be there for them at both national and provincial level.
“From there, we can look at a graduated return to rugby with a focus on reduced activities and non-contact forms of the game along the way.”
At face value, assuming the role of a “Safety Officer” on a voluntary basis looks to be a particularly demanding and onerous responsibility. Hence, the speed with which clubs are suddenly being asked to swing into action is likely to surprise and perhaps even alarm some of them.
That said most will also be straining at the leash for a return and as outlined in The Irish Times last Saturday, many clubs have lost anything from €100,000-€150,000 since the domestic game was suspended in mid-March.
The Union’s hardship fund, which issued payments of circa €3,750 to about 65/70 clubs last week, will do little to ease their difficulties and without a return to activity in, say, September or October, those losses will further multiply and potentially see clubs go out of existence.
Conceivably, clubs could return to “team sports training in small groups” from next Monday in Phase 2 of the Government’s road map. As things stand, close physical contact sports, such as rugby and boxing, can resume training on August 10th, in Phase 5.
This summary roadmap is clearly designed to both galvanise and encourage clubs into believing that there might be a road back in this calendar year.
“Safety is paramount and there’s a fair bit of work clubs need to do, and we need to educate, prior to any activity taking place,” said McEntee, “and it would be remiss of us to have massive lag time and then all of a sudden we’re asking clubs to open up next week.
“I think we need to use this space we have now. If we can do some activities – it could be drills or skills or non-contact – before August 10th, we need to have that ground prepared. We need to ensure clubs have a risk assessment plan and safety plan, and the right people in place to provide re-assurance.
“It’s like going down to your local Tescos or Woodies. Everywhere you go they have a Covid plan. Our clubs will be no different. It’s about preparing the ground for when we get an inkling that we can do any activity that we are good to go.”
One potentially significant difficulty is that the equivalent Step 5 in the Northern Ireland Executive’s roadmap does not have any specified date, although the IRFU will be maintaining a regular exchange of information with the Ulster Branch and its clubs.
There are plans to introduce a sports steering committee in Northern Ireland as well, but there’s no guarantee Ulster will be able to replicate the same return to play guidelines.
An IRFU survey of the 217 clubs found that while there is a willingness and desire to return to activity, clubs are receptive to the idea of returning on a localised or regionalisd basis initially.
The likelihood therefore is that, in a best case scenario, club rugby will return with provincial competitions, perhaps to be followed by an abbreviated Energia All-Ireland League in the New Year, or alternatively that the latter is suspended until the 2021-22 season.