As sports resume, English rugby stuck in scenario-planning

While elite sports gradually return in England amid the coronavirus pandemic, rugby remains stuck in scenario-planning.

Will England play autumn tests against the southern hemisphere giants, or their brothers from Europe? Will there, indeed, be any matches in November at all?

If there are games, will Twickenham be empty, have a reduced capacity, or be full?

And, on the domestic front, will the season resume for English Premiership clubs or be scrapped like every other league in the country?

Three months into rugby’s shutdown in England, the Rugby Football Union still has no definitive answers.

“We’re living in a world of uncertainty,” RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney said on Thursday as he discussed a range of issues in the game.

English Premier League football is preparing to restart in two weeks, international cricket will return in England next month with the visit of the West Indies, and horse racing was among the sports which got back on its feet this week.

Rugby, though, is in limbo, a victim of the nature of a sport where there is more contact than maybe any other at a time when social distancing restrictions are still in place in England

So all Sweeney can do is plan, with the lucrative November international schedule uppermost in his thoughts.

England is scheduled to play New Zealand, Tonga, Australia and Argentina on successive weekends at Twickenham in November, and the RFU ideally wants to stick to this plan. A sold-out match can generate $12 million for the RFU.

“Of course, that is driven a lot by international travel restrictions and guidelines,” he said on a media call. “Both of us (the northern and southern hemisphere countries) are developing our own backup and contingency plans for that.”

Among them is replacing matches against southern hemisphere opposition with matches against neighbors in Europe, allowing for easier movement in and out of the country. From Monday, air passengers arriving in Britain face a mandatory two-week quarantine period.

A creative idea being discussed is launching a first-ever Six Nations tournament to feature home and away fixtures. The 2021 edition would start this autumn and continue in February with the reverse fixtures.

The proposal was raised by Italian rugby leaders on Wednesday, and Sweeney confirmed it was one of the options being evaluated.

“It is possible,” he said.

“Our plans are for an autumn series to go ahead — who it is against, at the moment, we cannot give 100% certainty. But we are planning on autumn internationals taking place.”

In the days after sports were shut down in England in mid-March, Sweeney said the RFU stands to lose around 32 million pounds ($40 million) in revenue in the next financial year even if the autumn internationals do go ahead.

There is still uncertainty - lockdown restrictions are being gradually eased in Britain but the country has the highest official daily death rate of any country in Europe at present — and Sweeney said scenarios have been drawn up for four potential models.

Games in empty stadiums. Games with social-distancing guidelines of one or two meters. And games in full stadiums.

“We have run the numbers so we have a sense of what that does,” Sweeney said.

As the most important rugby official in England, Sweeney is one of six people in a working group discussing a new global calendar, which would bring together countries from the northern and southern hemisphere into combined tournaments.

It is one of the key parts of the manifesto of recently re-elected World Rugby chairman, Bill Beaumont, and Sweeney said talks have been taking place since before the pandemic struck.

Indeed, discussions are taking place four or five times a week, Sweeney said.

“If we can get that over the line in whatever shape or form that comes, it will be a major achievement that this crisis has enabled us, or facilitated us, to get to,” he said.

Again, there is nothing definitive. And the same can be said of how the domestic English Premiership campaign -- suspended for nearly three months -- will be concluded.

All levels below the top tier have been canceled and players have only just returned to training on a non-contact, socially distanced basis. One of the few decisions made was the confirmation that Newcastle will be promoted from the second-tier Championship.

One official at a Premiership club, Northampton chairman John White, has raised the prospect of forfeiting relegation and ring-fencing the top league to give clubs some financial certainty in these challenging times.

Sweeney didn’t immediately reject that option, saying: “It is a very big topic and complex topic.”

The restarting of the domestic season in England clashing with clubs’ commitments in European competitions and also a revamped international calendar is yet another issue facing rugby bosses.

With rugby’s finances also a worry, it’s no wonder Sweeney stressed this “is not a 12-month bump in the road.”

“This is a much more longer-term fix,” he said. “The consequences and the impact of this crisis will be with us for some considerable time and depending on which scenario you pick, it is either three, four, or five years, or maybe slightly more.”


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