By Simon Lewis
Irish rugby players, professional and amateur, will have woken this morning to a very different sporting landscape as their governing bodies called a halt to all playing activity in response to the growing threat of Covid-19 on these shores.
The Guinness PRO14 season has been suspended while the Irish Rugby Football Union ordered the cessation of all training and playing island-wide across clubs and schools, from minis to adult rugby, including the Energia All Ireland Leagues.
Yesterday’s decisions came hours after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s announcement that all schools, colleges and childcare facilities be closed from 6pm last night until March 29, a timeframe in which the Government strongly advised all indoor gatherings of more than 100 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 500 should be cancelled.
Those declarations also impacted on golf with both the Golfing Union of Ireland and Irish Ladies Golf Union cancelling or postponing upcoming amateur championships and inter-club tournaments, international matches on Irish soil and national coaching sessions.
Despite the assertion that golf is “played in an outdoor setting where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is low”, it also advised its constituent clubs to adhere fully to the revised guidelines issued by the HSE yesterday and remain cognisant of the older age profile of its own members.
Yet while the restrictions put in place by the Government do not prevent club competitions or casual rounds of golf taking place, the priority remained to keep club members and staff “safe and well”.
There will be similar aims in force when the professional rugby squads continue training today despite their next PRO14 games not now scheduled until next month at the earliest.
The IRFU decision to suspend all activity applied to domestic rugby with the professional set-ups in Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster free to continue training as they mark time before the resumption of play.
Munster had already been starting into an enforced lay-off following the recent postponements of their away and home fixtures with Treviso-based Benetton.
The next scheduled game for Johann van Graan’s squad is with Cardiff Blues at Thomond Park in the PR014 on April 11 and with the non-internationals having just returned from a pre-arranged week off they have resumed and will continue to train at the province’s High Performance Centre on the otherwise closed University of Limerick campus.
Monday will see the return to the HPC of Munster’s Ireland senior and Under-20 representatives as both the pro and academy panels resume training under their head coach, who acknowledged the “unique situation”.
“This is the first time that this has happened so we’ve just got to adapt,” van Graan told Munster’s website. “All credit to all our staff, we have put our heads together and the important thing is having the mindset that we adapt to any change.
“The plan for the next few weeks’ training has changed quite a lot.
We had given the squad a week away from rugby last week to prepare for the two games against Benetton on the 21st and 27th and obviously that’s changed and the international players didn’t play the two Test matches against Italy and France.
“The squad came in on Tuesday and the internationals will join us on Monday, we’re just going to take it week by week and adapt to the situation and train as well as we can.
It’s about managing your squad and firstly making the individual better and as a group prepare as well as we can with the information that you have.
Munster had hoped to keep a number of its fringe and academy players busy in AIL action with their clubs during the absence of professional games but now that luxury has been denied now the clubs themselves have had their league schedules suspended.
There is now also fresh doubt over the feasibility of playing the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals which are scheduled to feature Leinster and Ulster on the weekend of April 3, 4 and 5, a week after the Irish government’s restriction period has been signposted to conclude.
Leinster are due to host Saracens at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium with Ulster heading to France to face Toulouse.
Yet while European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) on Monday announced it was envisaged the last-eight games in both the Champions and Challenge Cups would go ahead as scheduled it yesterday reacted to the suspension of the Guinness PRO14 season with a more cautious statement.
“EPCR notes the suspension of the Guinness PRO14 season and continues to liaise with the relevant league and union bodies regarding next month’s Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup quarter-final matches while closely monitoring developments in relation to COVID-19.
“An update regarding the matches will be communicated as soon as practicable, and in the meantime, EPCR remains fully supportive of the preventative measures which have been introduced to date in the interest of overall public health and will respect further directives by governments and local authorities.”
While supporters and club players wonder when and where their next live rugby fix is coming from, the decision to suspend the PRO14 league season has been welcomed by the professional players’ body, Rugby Players Ireland, in light of the threat posed by the Covid-19 virus.
RPI chief executive Simon Keogh said yesterday he was satisfied “that the health and welfare of the association’s members had been kept to the fore of any discussions”.
“We have been in regular dialogue with our Executive Board members and players over the past number of weeks,” Keogh said.
“While they are obviously disappointed, they appreciate that these are unprecedented times and that unprecedented measures are necessary. Such decisions ultimately lie beyond our remit.
“We are grateful to all parties concerned for taking all advice into account and ensuring that our players’ safety and that of the wider public remains the priority.”
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