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Naming a date is just the start of rugby's road back with complex challenges lying ahead


IRFU chief executive Philip Browne. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

IRFU chief executive Philip Browne. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

IRFU chief executive Philip Browne. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

According to the plan unveiled by IRFU chief executive Philip Browne yesterday, rugby will return on the weekend of August 22/23.

The news was delivered during an hour-long press briefing, held by video conference, as Browne laid bare the "catastrophic" financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on rugby and other sports.

The date gives the union a target to work towards after months of uncertainty, but they have work to do to convince public health officials and the Government that their plan is the right one.

However, Browne and the union felt it was imperative to have that date in the diary.

"Otherwise, we're just going to be chasing shadows," he said. 

"We have put together very detailed return-to-play and return-to-train protocols and event management protocols, some of which are already with Government and some which still need to be submitted.

"Essentially, all of those protocols are in place to protect the players, the ancillary staff around the game, and those there in terms of broadcast, media, etc. These haven't been cooked up in some dark corner of Lansdowne Road. We have consulted widely across sport and across the world. We're learning from others.

"We would try to play the first couple of matches in a highly controlled environment in the Aviva Stadium. It makes sense to do that and it almost becomes a pilot before we start to roll it back out into the provinces."

Given players will need six weeks to prepare for matches, the provinces will now plan to return to training on July 12, slightly less than a month before rugby is officially scheduled to return and the IRFU will have some convincing to do on that front.

That's the beginning of the complexity. 

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As other leagues and sports have discovered, there are many steps to go through before returning to play.

Players must consider their own safety and that of their families, while weighing the financial risks involved from not playing.  Browne said the union are in consultation with Rugby Players Ireland and a group of senior players regarding the financial impact, with the clear implication being that cuts are on the way if the scenario continues much longer.

Once they return to training, the complexity steps up a notch as squads return to work while trying to avoid infection in their normal lives.

They may be required to sign a waiver, while some could be given the option of opting out if their personal circumstances dictate that they are uncomfortable returning.

Still, if buy-in is achieved and they get to the next round of games the complexity steps up a notch as international travel comes into view.

Browne's briefing took place against the backdrop of the Irish Government moving towards implementing a 14-day quarantine period for international travellers.

Of course, that will be unworkable for sports teams operating within an extremely tight schedule. Again, Browne hopes that the Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) play ball.

"In sport, the general principle is that you would take your team, your squad, your management, and they would effectively be operating in a very different environment where there is regular testing and you understand how they are operating," he explained. "We would be trying to make a distinction between a sport team taking part in a cross-border competition as opposed to a general traveller coming in and out of the country."

Browne admitted that the union were disappointed by the decision to include rugby as part of phase five of the Government's roadmap for a return, while other field sports were included in stage four.

He'll be acutely aware of NPHET's Dr Cillian De Gascun's comments about the unlikelihood of international rugby this side of Christmas, but will hope that the financial imperative will convince Government to approve the plans.

Other sporting bodies will be watching and, no doubt, they'll welcome the words of a heavy-hitting CEO like Browne when he called for Government support for sports across the board who have all been hit heavily by the crisis.

The union's decision to go public with their plans creates a line in the sand for their next meeting with Government.

The road ahead is full of challenges, but Browne was clear on the appalling financial vista ahead if they can't get started again in August.

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