Rugby in a pandemic: Welcome to the season from the edge of oblivion

The return of supporters is seen as vital to the future of the professional game

A crowd of 37,000 could be allowed into Wellington’s Sky Stadium for the New Zealand v Australia Bledisloe Cup match next Sunday. Photograph: Marty Melville/Inpho

A crowd of 37,000 could be allowed into Wellington’s Sky Stadium for the New Zealand v Australia Bledisloe Cup match next Sunday. Photograph: Marty Melville/Inpho

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That Micheál Martin and pals are the first generation of anti-Treatyites to let builders demolish The O’Rahilly’s house would not have been lost on the Leinster fan wandering into the RDS last night. They would have seen the rubble.

Instead, barely a sinner was to be found around Paddy Cullen’s and Mary Mac’s. Empty Ballsbridge watering holes as rugby returns with Welsh Dragons and Leinster only joined by a gaggle of reporters zooming Leo Cullen from a hundred paces.

The centre cannot hold. Irish rugby’s financial model has collapsed but the sport is hardly alone in playing Oliver Twist to Micheál’s Mr Bumble.

“I know Philip Browne has said in the past that the current financial model, being so dependent on crowds, will have to change to something more sustainable,” says Simon Keogh, the chief executive of Rugby Players Ireland.

What that is nobody knows. We imagine Rassie Erasmus and Jeff Bezos selling a new global vision to CVC’s faceless executives from a boardroom in the clouds.

Crowds are the lifeblood of the game. Especially in Ireland. Combating this “existential” threat – as Browne has labelled rugby’s plight – is not just hardball lobbying of an accident prone Government. It is a fast approaching reality.

Bean counters, from amateur clubs to professional dynasties, are humming the same funeral march.

The ‘no shower on site’ rule cannot hold either. Not in schools. Not in clubs. Hypothermia beckons as we enter the winter of our discontent.

The new season finds itself seven months into a pandemic, with no end in sight, but the demise of professional rugby’s current iteration is coming into focus. Damian Hopley, chief executive of the English players association, speaks of a “typhoon sweeping through the sport”.

We witnessed the aftermath of Typhoon Hagibis in Japan last year and Hopley is on the money – not that there is any – when stating: “The foundations of sport have been completely rocked.”

Cracks in concrete pillars propping up Yokohama train station needed mending while water levels had risen so high that Japanese players were forced to wade into the stadium 24 hours before their do or die encounter with Scotland.

The game went ahead. Fast forward 12 months and Japan have declined an invitation to tour Europe for the autumn series (Georgia snatched their place). In fact, the Brave Blossoms will not play a Test match in 2020; rugby’s bright new region unable to justify a flight into the Covid countries.

Professional rugby players in Ireland took a 10 per cent cut in pay along with a 10 per cent pay deferral. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Professional rugby players in Ireland took a 10 per cent cut in pay along with a 10 per cent pay deferral. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“The right decision has been made,” said Japan coach Jamie Joseph. “We still have plenty of time to prepare ourselves for the next World Cup.”

Meanwhile in France, an outbreak of the virus at Racing 92 cancelled today’s trip to Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle while casting a dark cloud over the Champions Cup final on October 17th.

You listen to Hopley and Browne delivering stark warnings about pro rugby’s potential collapse, and realise the underlying message to their respective governments is to provide a bailout that pales into insignificance when compared to the Irish banks in 2008 (€41.7 million, rather than billion, should keep the show on the road).

“I’d be confident that we can get through it,” said Browne in September before extinguishing fresh hope by adding the ‘V’ word. “There may be a little bit of pain along the way, but I think that we will get to the point where there’s a vaccine and things will turn.”

Neither Corona-killing-jabs nor Government funds will save the IRFU. Having contacted all the king’s horses and all the king’s men this week, we write with complete confidence that the only people who can put rugby back together again are driven demented by the constant channel surfing to find a game.

The worm will only turn on gate receipts. Browne knows the truest remedy is to prove how fans can safely enter and exit the Aviva without overly mixing households or super spreading to asthmatics and diabetics.

This is the only conundrum that needs solving. Once Level 3 numbers are lowered, 18,000 punters spread across 51,000 seats will suffice. NPHET virologist Cillian De Gascun predicted last April that this might be possible when England and France visit Dublin in spring 2021.

“It is looking a bit bleak at the moment from all unions and that unfortunately is our reality,” says Stephen McNamara, the IRFU director of communications. “So far, we have cut all non-essential spending and suppliers costs and only phased them back in when they are essential again [at reduced rates]. We have reduced player and staff salaries across all of Irish Rugby [the largest overhead] and we are now looking at how to further cut our spend across all programmes and elements of the game that we support.

“No decisions have yet been made, but as Philip said, everything is under review. Our aim will be to cut costs rather than discontinue any programme, but some tough decisions may need to be taken.”

Browne has also stated that no organisation this reliant on clicking turnstiles will survive another six months performing to an empty gallery.

Player salaries are in for a second hefty dent after Christmas. The IRFU and Keogh – a rapid Harlequins winger in between two stints with Leinster – ironed out a fair deal during the summer, certainly in comparison to what players in other nations had to swallow (see panel).

“We operate a lot differently from England,” says Keogh. “We rely on the international game to support the provinces and the community game whereas the English clubs almost compete against the international game.”

Simon Keogh: ‘I do think we can get out of this. I don’t know when that will be and that’s the problem for everybody.’ Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Simon Keogh: ‘I do think we can get out of this. I don’t know when that will be and that’s the problem for everybody.’ Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Different models equally reliant on full houses. Hopley states “irrevocable damage” has already been inflicted upon the English clubs while Mick Dawson, the Leinster chief executive, revealed losses of €9 million.

“At the moment our income streams are slashed, cut in half,” Dawson told the Inside Business podcast. “We normally have about 12,500 season tickets so we decided not to do that [this season] for the simple reason that we don’t know when people will get through the turnstiles again. So we formed a Leinster club and about 6,000 people signed up for that. Those people are buying the right to get first crack at any tickets that do become available. But there’s no light at the end of the tunnel at the moment.”

On a dreary Wednesday afternoon, Keogh refused to strike the same despondent chord.

“I do think we can get out of this. I don’t know when that will be and that’s the problem for everybody; no one can forecast or budget for the next while.

“The message [Hopley and Browne are sending to the Irish and UK governments] is real. It is not a ploy. We went through a process with the IRFU in July and when you go through everything you see the stark reality of where we are going. We just need to tread very carefully.”

Strong, sensible leadership has never felt so important.

Without supporters at the Aviva, and Thomond Park in particular, the next round of salary negotiations between Keogh and Browne will be short and sour.

“It is going to be a harder conversation because, without doubt, there is going to be less money in the game,” Keogh states matter of factly. “But there are grounds to be optimistic. We are seven months into a pandemic, of which we know a lot more about, and rugby is actually being played now.

“Crowds are being seen in other parts of the world so hopefully this season we will see them come back because the survival of professional rugby – without any additional funding – is dependent on it.”

Six hundred northern souls marched on Ravenhill last night, 200 Connacht fans can return to The Sportsground today and on Monday New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern will reveal whether Auckland can return to ‘alert level 1’. If that happens, 37,000 supporters in Wellington will be joined by 50,000 at Eden Park when the Wallabies face the All Blacks over the next two Sundays.

If Auckland’s mini cluster remains a problem – a city of 1.7 million was severely restricted due to 179 cases that were fully tracked and traced – the second Bledisloe Test match will switch to Forsyth Barr stadium in Dunedin. The Kiwis might have the advantage of geographical isolation but they have a firm handle on this generational crisis. Their All Blacks took a 50 per cent pay freeze back in April.

Interestingly, the 44-man Wallaby squad demanded a return to full pay before jumping on a plane to Christchurch. They did agree among themselves to funnel some of their $10,000 (€6,000) match fees to players back in Australia.

World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper. Photograph: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP via Getty Images
World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper. Photograph: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP via Getty Images

The Rugby Championship brings New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa to Australia for 12 games between November 7th and December 12th. The 75 per cent capacity in stadiums should have a green light by then. It’s possible that ANZ stadium will pack in 83,500 for Australia versus New Zealand two weeks before Christmas.

Elsewhere, the game walks a perilous tightrope. The Springboks might pull the plug on travelling and French club’s 5,000 capacity at Top 14 games is expected to be reduced or even erased as Covid swarms Europe once again.

“It’s estimated that the home unions could lose more than £100 million if closed doors rugby continues,” said World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper. “If things don’t start getting better by springtime we are going to be in a more drastic situation.”

The crowds are inevitably being linked to salaries. Some unions are looking at percentage deductions based on the numbers allowed into stadiums.

Considering the South African franchises are moving north, you would think the collective minds would zero in on streamlining the global calendar.

“Most of the administrations at both ends of the world are heavily focused on issues in relation to 2020 and Covid,” says Omar Hassanein, chief executive of the International Rugby Players’ Association, “I guess that is clouding everyone’s mind from focusing on the longer term issues.

“It is keep your head above water stuff at the moment. That means the timeline for meaningful talks on a global calendar are starting to get pushed out but at some point we are going to have to get all the stakeholders focused because it is a complex piece of work.”

Surely – right here, right now – we live in the ideal moment to form a new deal.

“The noose is tightening,” said Hopley. “Can clubs survive until Christmas or into next year? Can some unions survive? It’s a very stark situation.”

Roll on the rugby season from the edge of oblivion.

The lie of the land

IRELAND

Supporters: Ulster trialled 600 people at Kingspan stadium last night. Without at least 18,000 fans inside the Aviva stadium, the IRFU cannot invoice for €32.5 million worth of premium tickets.

Salaries: Players accepted a 10 per cent pay cut and another 10 per cent salary deferral until January 1st, 2021 but IRFU chief executive Philip Browne has indicated that, due to the professional game costing €5 million per month, more cuts are probable.

NEW ZEALAND

Supporters: Wellington’s Sky Stadium is expected to sell 37,000 tickets for the first Bledisloe Cup match against the Wallabies next Sunday.

Salaries: The All Blacks accepted a 50 per cent pay freeze to protect players earning less than $50,000 (€28,000). Match fees have never been so valuable.

AUSTRALIA

Supporters: 40,000 Rugby League fans will attend the Grand Final in Sydney’s 82,000 capacity Olympic stadium on October 25th with 75 per cent capacity hoped to be accommodated for The Rugby Championship in November.

Salaries: The Wallabies – led by player rep Justin Harrison – backed away from strike action or a mass exodus after Rugby Australia brought their salaries back to 100 per cent.

ENGLAND

Supporters: The planned 20,000 at Twickenham has been abandoned due to increase in the virus.

Salaries: 25 per cent pay cut across all clubs prompted Manu Tuilagi to leave Leicester for the Sale Sharks. The England centre just tore his Achilles.

FRANCE

Supporters: 5,000 attending matches is under review as France, especially Racing 92 and Stade Francais, are severely impacted.

Salaries: 20 per cent cut in club budgets is expected to increase unless the billionaire owners pump more cash into a failing financial model.

WALES

Supporters: No crowds presently allowed at any sporting events. Upcoming games against Scotland and Georgia will be hosted by Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli.

Salaries: 25 per cent cut across the board.

SCOTLAND

Supporters: 700 supporters and 300 staff at Murrayfield was the initial plan but the Pro 14 fixtures begin behind closed doors.

Salaries: SRU chief executive Mark Dobson’s 30 per cent pay cut, with players taking a 25 per cent hit, has come in for severe criticism after it was revealed that last year he banked £933,000 (€1 million) in pay and bonuses.

SOUTH AFRICA

Supporters: Rugby returns to South Africa this weekend with 174 people – including players and staff – allowed inside the 51,762 capacity Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria as the new Pro 16 sides, Bulls v Sharks and Lions v Stormers, square off.

Salaries: 25 per cent cut until the end of 2020.

JAPAN

Supporters: 5,000 have been allowed into baseball and soccer stadiums with this number expected to increase.

Salaries: The lucrative club scene is largely unaffected as player salaries are underwritten by corporations, but the JRFU cancelled the Brave Blossoms groundbreaking European tour.

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