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World Rugby restart plan to hit IRFU coffers hard


World Rugby chief medical officer Dr Eanna Falvey. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

World Rugby chief medical officer Dr Eanna Falvey. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

World Rugby chief medical officer Dr Eanna Falvey. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The extent of the challenge facing rugby as it tries to return from the coronavirus shutdown has been laid bare by medical guidelines released by World Rugby that state matches will have to take place behind closed doors until a vaccine for Covid-19 has been found.

That means the IRFU and other unions are heading for a major financial shock even when the sport is allowed to resume.

The Irish union lost between €3.5 to €4m from the postponement of the Six Nations match against Italy, while they missed out on prize and television revenue when the away trip to France fell victim to the crisis.

Ireland's summer tour to Australia is expected to be called off in the coming days. Andy Farrell's men are due to host world champions South Africa as well as Australia and Japan in a lucrative November series, while their home Six Nations fixtures against England and France are normally guaranteed sell-outs.

However, it appears that all of these matches will be either behind closed doors or in front of restricted crowds if they take place at all, putting union coffers under real pressure.

Income from the senior men's international team generated 81 per cent of the IRFU's revenue in 2019 when the union recorded its best ever financial year.

The impact of the pandemic was felt instantly, however, and the IRFU implemented a pay deferral scheme of between 10 and 50 per cent for its 500-strong staff of players, coaches and administrators working across the provinces in March.

Chief executive Philip Browne has said that they would have to revisit their plan if the stoppage extends past September.

Currently, a return to rugby is listed under stage five of the Government's roadmap out of the current lockdown and can happen from August 10 under the current schedule.

Before Friday's announcement by An Taoiseach, the provinces had planned a return to training on May 18 but that is likely to be postponed for at least another month.

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Over the weekend, Dr Cillian De Gascun of the National Public Health Emergency Team warned that the November internationals are unlikely to be given permission to go ahead, contradicting World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont who floated the idea of a bumper set of internationals in October and November.

October is also when Heineken Champions Cup and PRO14 organisers are hoping to complete their tournaments, but the guidelines and Dr De Gascun's comments will bring a dose of reality to discussions.

The IRFU and provinces were already putting in place contingency plans to restart training in smaller-than-normal groups under the social distancing guidelines and World Rugby's document will provide them with further clarity about the lengths they will need to go to to make it work.

Players will have to wear gloves, face masks and refrain from physical contact during sessions - effectively ruling out rucking, mauling, scrummaging and tackling, according to the guidelines which were compiled by medical experts including former IRFU doctor Éanna Falvey, who worked alongside Prav Mathema, Mary Horgan and Martin Raftery of World Rugby.

Before training, all players will have their temperatures taken and anyone who registers over 37.5c will be sent home. Players will have to fill out a daily questionnaire and training facilities will need to be deep-cleaned after every use.

The guidelines state: "Where possible, all players and staff should wear face masks to prevent possible spread from asymptomatic, infected players."

The IRFU were to seek clarification from Government as to the ramifications of Friday's timeline and it is understood players and staff will be updated today.

If international competition is impossible, the union will hope to run an interprovincial tournament behind closed doors at the Aviva Stadium as early as possible. World Rugby's guidelines recommend that competitive matches should resume only once there is an agreement between union, clubs, competition organisers, coaches and players.

After competitive rugby successfully resumes, international rugby could take place if the countries share "relaxed border-control measures", putting the cross-hemisphere games at real risk.

World Rugby do have a €92m Covid-19 relief fund that unions can access if they can demonstrate they are in severe financial difficulty as a result of the pandemic.

The IRFU is entitled to apply for up to €9m in such circumstances.

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