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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Marseille decision a clear reminder of the dangers to rugby's resumption

'The Aviva Stadium is likely to be Irish rugby’s base for the first five weeks at the very least, with Leinster due to host Saracens in the Champions Cup quarter-final on the weekend of September 19.' Photo: Sportsfile

Six English Premiership players and four members of staff tested positive for Covid-19 this week, while yesterday the organisers of the Heineken Champions Cup, EPCR, announced that the final will not be held in Marseille this October.

If rugby needed a reminder of the high stakes and huge risks to its return, here it was.

EPCR's decision is eminently sensible. Marseille will instead host the finals weekend in the early summer of 2021 when it is hoped that some form of normality has returned. The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which was due to host next year's finals, will instead welcome rugby a year later.

Instead, safety and common sense will dictate where the showpiece event of the European club season will be held.

If, for example, Leinster and Ulster make their way through the knockouts in September it is reasonable to expect that Dublin will host the final and so it goes. The Challenge Cup final will be held in a different host city if that too makes sense.

There is a lot of road to travel before we reach the intended date for that final.

In England, the Premiership is due back on August 15 and the PRO14 returns a week later with a fortnight of derbies.


Where things get tricky is in September when cross-border travel is inevitable in a competition that features teams from six health jurisdictions all at different stages of dealing with the virus.

Governing bodies hope that travelling sports teams will be exempt from rules around quarantining but that has yet to be confirmed.

The Aviva Stadium is likely to be Irish rugby's base for the first five weeks at the very least, with Leinster due to host Saracens in the Champions Cup quarter-final on the weekend of September 19.

Irish officials hope to be able to welcome crowds back to games at some point in the autumn, but it remains to be seen how the Government will approach the potential for travelling fans making their way from countries at different stages of dealing with Covid-19.

Officials are understandably cautious, fearing a second wave that could derail plans for a resumption and heap more financial pressure on cash-strapped unions and clubs.

Across the sporting world, the examples of the Australian state of Victoria and the English city of Leicester are being closely watched.

Melbourne's sporting franchises have decamped to other cities to keep the show on the road as the region enters a second lockdown, but that will be far harder to do in Europe when teams are playing in more than one competition.

The plan is not yet confirmed, but the picture is looking clearer.

For all that getting back playing behind closed doors, thus generating television income and prize money, will be helpful, it is bums on those green seats that drives the economy of Irish rugby.

Ireland hope to welcome Italy to Dublin on October 24, before travelling to Paris a week later to complete their Six Nations campaign.

Then, they're expected to take part in an eight-team tournament with the other top European countries, Japan and Fiji with the Rugby Championship teams remaining in the Southern Hemisphere to play that tournament.

Given travel to and from Japan and Fiji looks off the table, it remains to be seen if rugby officials plan to host all the games in neutral venues or in European stadia.

But, given how much the gate receipts from the planned November games against South Africa, Australia and Japan would generate for the IRFU in a normal year there will be a desire to have at least two more home games in front of paying punters in the autumn.

Under the two-metre social distancing restrictions, the capacity of the Aviva Stadium is 8,400. If the restrictions are reduced to one metre, then that goes up to 18,200.

Yesterday, the union got their local affairs in order - publishing plans for club rugby's return with the caveats of public health advice stamped all over the document.

They have made contingencies for games cancelled as a result of the virus during the campaign which will be declared draws, while the regional start to the season makes sense from a cost and risk perspective.

Although it matters greatly to those involved, the stakes are relatively low on a local level.

On the global stage, any further set-backs would be financially devastating for the sport as a whole and the decision to shelve the Marseille final demonstrates the precarious nature of the whole operation.

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