Hopes are growing that crowd restrictions will be lifted ahead of Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Wales on Saturday fortnight.
Current rules which are in place until January 31 stipulate that a maximum of 5,000 fans are allowed to attend outdoor sporting events, but the IRFU is operating on the basis that it will be at capacity for their three home matches against Wales, Italy and Scotland.
Last year’s tournament took place entirely behind closed doors, but fans returned to Ireland games last summer and there were no crowd restrictions at all three November series matches.
The spectre of Covid-19 continues to lurk over the tournament, however, with a French government ban on unvaccinated players likely to cause headaches for the three teams due to visit this spring.
Ireland will be in Paris on February 12 and, while the IRFU yesterday reported an “almost universal take-up of vaccinations”, it stopped short of guaranteeing that all players would be allowed entry into France.
Although French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu said an exemption for elite athletes would be considered, the government has not implemented that clause and it could affect Connacht who are due to face Stade Francais in Paris on Sunday.
In October, the union said it had a 99.2pc uptake of Covid-19 vaccination among its players, coaches and support staff, but it is understood that some of the squad picked for November were not vaccinated.
“We have almost universal take-up of vaccinations and follow Government health advice and guidance at all times,” an IRFU spokesperson said.
“When preparing teams to travel abroad we ensure we observe the local health policies, guidelines and laws in that country.”
The Italian Federation has said that all of its players are vaccinated, but England may have to cope without star centre Henry Slade who voiced his own concern about the vaccine last year. He is unlikely to be the only member of Eddie Jones’ squad who will be unable to travel.
Andy Farrell is set to name his squad for the tournament tomorrow amid growing hopes that there will be a large crowd in for the Wales game.
“As the Guinness Six Nations is due to begin on the first weekend in February we will remain in contact with Government and issue updates as and when more information is available,” the IRFU said. “For now, we are proceeding with our normal planning, as failure to do so would impact ticket distribution for the Guinness Six Nations.”
Irish centre Bundee Aki will escape a ban for the outburst he directed at referee Mathieu Raynal last Saturday. It is understood the Connacht centre will not be cited.
The two men will meet again during the Six Nations, with Raynal scheduled to take charge of Ireland’s clash with England. South African Jaco Peyper will be in the middle for the opener against Wales.
Meanwhile, Jacob Stockdale’s season is over already after the Ulster and Ireland winger underwent surgery on the ankle injury that has kept him out since the opening weekend of the campaign.