The Effect of COVID-19 on Rugby

With the coronavirus continually pushing the restart of all sport further back, Steven Brown looked into how the pandemic was affecting all levels of rugby, both domestically and internationally.

rugby ball

Rugby has been one of the many sports affected by the spread of the coronavirus, with the Six Nations having been halted midway through the tournament.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in early March, 67,000 eager fans marched on mass towards BT Murrayfield, with a fierce contest between the high-flying France and their own Scotland awaiting them beyond the ticket gates. The uproar within the stadium limits drowned out any inclination that there was any worry to be had in the world, with Six Nations rugby taking centre stage for all those concerned. The roar of the Scotland fans would continue long into the night after their team were victorious against their French adversaries, with Gregor Townsend’s side looking ahead to their fixture against Wales with no fear. However, like many matches across every sport, the fixture never arrived due to the unprecedented danger surrounding the coronavirus, or COVID-19.

While not as widely reported as football, rugby has been experiencing very similar ramifications of the virus. All levels of the sport, from professional down to the grassroots, have been postponed indefinitely until the quarantine guidelines are lifted. There have been some suggestions as to when the professional season would end – domestic competition would look to conclude in the middle of the summer, while the Six Nations would wrap up some time in October.

The postponement of the remaining Six Nations fixtures, while admirable in the sense of playing the remainder of the tournament out, could spawn some serious problems in the short term. The tournament itself accumulates huge sums of money over its duration through ticketing, sponsorships, merchandising and many other avenues. This money goes back into the development of Scottish rugby and, without that money, grassroots rugby could see its growth stunted.

The wave of financial burden is affecting the sport of rugby on a global scale, with news breaking that the board of rugby in the USA has filed for bankruptcy. This is similar to the situation that Samoa found themselves in only a few years ago, albeit lacking a global pandemic. A worrying prospect is that many more international, club and amateur teams could see themselves falling further down this slippery slope of financial instability, with fears being amplified in England after the Rugby Football Union (RFU) announced that they wouldn’t provide English Premiership clubs with any financial aid. RFU Chief Executive Bill Sweeney and his executive team have already taken a 25% wage reduction as they anticipate a loss of £50 million. Furthermore, Sweeney has confirmed that 340 of the league’s staff have been placed on a furlough scheme, accounting for 62% of the league’s personnel.

grassroots rugby

The financial implications of the spread of coronavirus run deep within the different levels of rugby, with the development at grassroots level stunted for the foreseeable future.

The same changes have been made up in Scotland as well, with Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend and Director of Rugby Mark Dodson taking a 25% wage cut, mirroring that of Bill Sweeney and England head coach Eddie Jones. While certain individuals have been highlighted, there have been financial implications on every level, with many smaller amateur clubs really beginning to feel the struggle of a lack of income. Additionally, the mental health of the players is a real concern as they will have to go without social interaction and exercise at the level they’re used to.

While COVID-19 continues to dominate the headlines and push the return of sport further and further back, there have been some positives that have been brought into existence. One instance can be found in the south of Wales, with the Scarlets rugby team transforming their training facility into a makeshift hospital ward, providing 500 beds for those suffering from the virus. Additionally, professional players have been competing on the virtual stage, with the RugbyPass YouTube channel uploading videos of pros playing FIFA 20 against each other, to provide fans with some entertainment in these trying times.

While COVID-19 continues to leave the future uncertain, rugby fans can only wait until the announcement is made for their sport to return. In the meantime, it’s encouraging to see those involved with the sport contributing to the fight against the virus, while keeping their fans entertained.

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