Rugby must learn to live alongside Covid-19 for the foreseeable future

It would be naive to think that the sport could operate in a bubble of immunity from the virus

Staff clean down the flag posts at the Aviva Stadium ahead of the Guinness Pro 14 game between Leinster and Munster. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Staff clean down the flag posts at the Aviva Stadium ahead of the Guinness Pro 14 game between Leinster and Munster. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

The decision to go ahead with Leinster’s Guinness Pro14 match against Ulster at the Aviva stadium on Saturday night in the wake of eight positive cases of coronavirus in the Ulster academy is difficult to reconcile at face value.

After all, the outcome of the game will not have a material impact on the standings in Conference A as both provinces have already qualified for the semi-finals of the tournament which take place the weekend after next.

There are commercial responsibilities in relation to sponsors and television contracts when it comes to Pro14 but they should represent a subsidiary concern when weighed against the health and wellbeing of those involved.

The cancellation of the fixture would have removed any potential risk of cross-contamination between provinces in relations to players, coaches and the respective backroom teams but the decision to go ahead is part of a broader context rather than simply a discussion around the narrow confines of a single match.

The fact that the test results came back negative in relation to two of the four provincial squads, Leinster and Ulster – Munster’s results were due late last night with Connacht’s available this morning – was fundamental to the game going ahead.

The IRFU has put faith in their system, one underpinned by rigorous procedures and protocols, focusing on testing, isolating and contact tracing that seek to ensure best practice and the protection of everyone concerned.

There is another tenet to the decision-making process; sport is a mirror image of society so it too must learn to live with Covid-19 until such a time that an antidote is available.

Professional rugby – it is applicable right across the sporting spectrum – can’t afford to shut down every time there is a flare up in terms of cases because to do so would be financially unsustainable in the medium to long term. It doesn’t mean being cavalier or taking unacceptable risks but just as society is having to adjust, so too must sport.

If Saturday’s match was cancelled because of the outbreak in the Ulster academy, the knock-on effect going forward would make it very difficult not to follow a similar course of action when repeat episodes arose in the future.

To establish a precedent and then deviate from it without a change in circumstances relating to the pandemic, irrespective of whether it was Pro14, Champions Cup or Test matches, would call into question the logic behind the original decision. It would be naive to think looking ahead that rugby could suddenly operate in a bubble of immunity from Covid-19: society can’t, sport can’t, rugby can’t so it’s about coping and co-existing with the virus.

It is also about trying to shape a future. Financial considerations will be central to informing decisions. IRFU chief executive Phillip Browne has acknowledged time and again when discussing the ramifications of the pandemic on rugby in Ireland that to cut off revenue streams would have a catastrophic effect. The union needs the money accruing from the Pro 14, Champions Cup and Six Nations Championship to be paid into their coffers to financially underwrite the sport.

That means finishing each of the tournaments in question and preferably at the top of the pile to maximise revenue. CVC Capital’s growing financial stake in rugby has provided a welcome windfall for cash strapped unions but it won’t suffice; they need other income streams.

Andy Farrell’s Ireland team has four potential home games this year in November and December; against Italy in the Six Nations, hosting Wales and Fiji in the eight nations tournament and a final crossover match between the pools in that competition. The IRFU will be hoping that the Government will be in a position to allow spectators to attend in whatever limited capacity pertains.

To get to that point, rugby must be able to negotiate the imperfect world where the Coronavirus impacts on every aspect of life. The IRFU has to take micro and macro views of the risks and hope that their system allows them to keep playing because they can’t afford not to.

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