‘One Person Can Bring the Whole Thing Down’
Professional rugby made its comeback in England last weekend. It returns to Ireland on Saturday. Ireland’s premier professional clubs Leinster and Munster will play at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Munster had a scare in their camp recently after a player tested positive for COVID-19, the first instance in Irish rugby after a summer of testing. This serves as another stark reminder of how every sport in the country remains in a precarious position. The Irish Government’s strict 200-person capacity at outdoor events means only 50 players are permitted to be active on Saturday. The 200 figure includes bus drivers, security and stadium staff, coaches, medical staff and broadcaster, Eir, who will televise the game. Noticeably, apart from the broadcaster, no media are invited. Rugby is hoping that with such small numbers at stadiums that they get through the first few weeks unscathed, so that the strict person capacity figure could be revised in October. For this mid-week post, I’d like to focus on what rugby has in common with football and the challenges they both face when returning to the fields this season.
Rugby In Limbo
Due to its very physical nature, rugby union has been one of the sports hardest hit by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Rugby was struck off in March, much like other world sports, while in the middle of its August to May playing season similar to that of European soccer. Plans are changing rapidly, and rugby like other professional sports, needs guidance from the experts. There were warnings from doctors and sports medicine about the difficulties of team sports coming back at a time when there was a second wave. Players in Europe have a brutal schedule ahead. After no pro-season, they’re at the start of a schedule that in six weeks will take in domestic, European cup and international rugby. Inevitably, so much rugby in a short period is bound to lead to injuries. Much like NFL teams, most teams will be an injury away from losing touch or having their season ruined.
They have to deal with it and treat it as an opportunity in a crisis.
New Zealand was feted for its handling of COVID-19, but even it has had to deal with an uptick in cases this month. Auckland is in lockdown and one of the country’s top rugby franchises has had to stop playing. Running almost counter to its COVID-19 efforts, New Zealand was also the first country to allow crowds back in stadiums. French newspaper L’Equipe reported 25 individuals from the Parisian club Stade Francais contracted COVID-19 after returning from a pre-season camp in Nice. The club confirmed yesterday that a number of players were showing lung lesions due to the virus. "I think we’re going to have to try and, unfortunately, live with this virus, and that’s where this club is at the minute," said Ronan O’Gara, the former Munster and Ireland player, now head coach of leading French club La Rochelle. O’Gara conceded that one person can bring the whole thing down. Mitigating the Risk In rugby, the scrum is a means of restarting play. Like the photo you see to accompany this blog post, 16 bodies collide. It will be the most legally sanctioned aspect of social mingling we’ll see, matched by the line of scrimmage in the NFL. To minimize risk to the threat of the virus, contact is only being initiated in rugby and football just weeks before the start of season. It takes at least three games to get up to speed in rugby and football. And like football, soft tissues injuries and bangs from tackles will surface regularly once rugby games are underway. Neither sport had a pre-season and NFL players are only starting to practice in pads. Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, admitted the NFL has been tracking the return of European sports and speaking to soccer and rugby authorities. He also outlined the NFL’s philosophy, which chimes with Ronan O’Gara’s comments above. “I think we have to have a way to learn how to coexist with this virus. The virus is not going away any time soon. This isn't just an NFL issue or a pro sports issue, this is for our schools, our businesses, our places of worship, every aspect of our lives. Are we gonna be able to find ways to mitigate risk and still have some sense of our normal lives while we live with that virus? That's the challenge we all have and that's the challenge we're embracing here in the NFL."
The Fallout The World Health Organization says that risks of transmission are greatest when people are close to each other for 15 minutes or more. As part of COVID-19 guidance, English rugby players are forbidden from hugging and celebrating tries within two metres of each other. Despite the scrums, mauling and rucking, players will also be prohibited from shaking hands and high fiving. All teams have been warned over bad language as players will be easily heard on television in empty stadiums. Spitting is banned.
Rugby is doing its best but does not have the resources to test everyday as each NFL team is doing. Already it is feeling the financial pinch. English rugby’s governing body, the RFU, announced revenue losses of $140 million, and is planning to lay off 139 people. Irish players have taken a pay cut. The game at amateur and professional level could be in financial dire straits by Christmas.
Living With The Virus We know football has looked to rugby before. Both the Seattle Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons have invited rugby coaches in to get a competitive edge in the area of the tackle. The Falcons worked with former England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, who incidentally will be coaching Leinster on Saturday. While taking note of how other U.S. sports are faring with returning to play in a pandemic, football should continue to monitor its contact sport cousin across the Atlantic. There is no one-size-fits-all playbook. But, you can deduce much from observing how to operate once the collisions start and the risk transfers onto teams and players.
Amid the buzz surrounding the return of live rugby in Britain and Ireland, a potential sudden spike in COVID-19 infections in the next fortnight would be an absolute nightmare for the authorities.
As speculative as it might sound, hopefully the lift we’ll all get from the return of professional sports is worth it. The NFL is all eyes.