Irish rugby limps on as sport is hammered by the threat of Covid

Champions Cup is on hold for Munster due to Covid surge
Irish rugby limps on as sport is hammered by the threat of Covid

Munster's Damian de Allende is tackled by Damian Penaud of Clermont Auvergne in the last Champions Cup game before is was put on hold. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

PROFESSIONAL sport, and sport in general, is unlikely to feel very important in the coming days and weeks, as the Covid case numbers soar, the hospitalisation and ICU stats go through the roof, and the fatality figures hit frightening levels.

Football in the big leagues in Europe continues unabated, despite the whole of Europe facing down the barrel of the worst period of this pandemic to date on the continent.

Rugby union is struggling though.

Perhaps it is the very nature of the sport that is causing this. Scrums, rucks, mauls, lineouts and tackles are not exactly conducive to social distancing. If one player is infected then it may not take long to pass it onto teammates and opponents alike.

Another obvious issue is the cross-border nature of a lot of professional rugby on this continent.

The Pro14 is, at the moment, a four-country competition. So even if clubs are doing their best to remain within strict elite athlete bubble systems, all the necessary travelling and crossing of borders will obviously increase the exposure and risk of contracting the deadly virus.

It was on this basis that French authorities gave a directive that Top 14 clubs should not take part in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup over the next two weekends, meaning that the EPCR had little choice but to suspend all European competition amid the latest severe wave of the pandemic.

Peter O'Mahony, Dan Goggin and Chris Farrell. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Peter O'Mahony, Dan Goggin and Chris Farrell. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Hopefully, the crazy numbers we are seeing on the news day after day will soon dissipate to pre-Christmas levels and the EPCR can look at their options of restarting these competitions, which may have to involve yet another re-jig of their formats in order for them to reach completion.

The temporary withdrawal of French clubs from European competition does not mean all rugby is halted in France.

In fact, the LNR has moved quickly to fill the next fortnight with Top 14 games, as they have quickly rescheduled four previously postponed games this weekend while planning a full round of fixtures for the following weekend.

Over in England, Premiership Rugby has announced a two-week break rather than looking to fill the void left by the suspension of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, which differs from the Pro14 approach, who are clearly taking the opportunity to solve some of their fixture backlog issues.

DERBY

The recently postponed game between Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh has been rescheduled for Saturday, January 16, but over on this side of the pond, the big news is that the postponed St Stephen’s Day clash of Munster versus Leinster at Thomond Park has been rearranged for Saturday week.

If that game had taken place as scheduled then the likelihood would have been that both sides would have been at half strength. One of the few positives, if you can call it that, is Munster and Leinster are now likely to field full-strength teams in the inter-provincial Pro14 clash, which is a rarity in recent years.

For rugby supporters, this clash is a tantalising prospect, although the very legitimate question of whether rugby should be happening at all right now is a difficult one to answer.

Absolutely, it is correct to say that games of rugby do not really matter in the current Covid climate. A lot of people would be of the opinion that these games should be halted for the foreseeable until the huge numbers around the pandemic come tumbling down. And that argument is a difficult one to argue against.

One of the few arguments to continue these games is that due to no crowds being in attendance, and the largely effective athlete bubbles in place within the four provinces, the games continuing is unlikely to be contributing to the huge spikes in numbers being experienced right now.

Possibly the best argument for continuing rugby, and all sports being played right now, is the benefit that these sporting events provide for the badly stretched mental health of the general population. 

Folk are undoubtedly struggling right now, stuck at home during the worst lockdown we have had to date, and having something as simple as a game of rugby to look forward to at the end of another tough week cannot be underestimated.

So, while these games do not matter a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, they certainly can help people get through these dark times, and this aspect of sport right now should not be underestimated.

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