YOU have to feel sorry for those poor folk in the Scottish Rugby Development Department and on the Scottish Rugby Council who have spent the last few weeks wrestling with a Sophie’s Choice dilemma between charging ahead with a 31st October restart date for the club game, or pushing it back – perhaps as far as January 2021 – until we hopefully have a better grip on how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
These decision-makers will be damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. You suspect that they have been quietly praying for the Scottish Government to intervene with a high-level pronouncement which takes the issue out of their hands – which might be part of the reason why the webinar to inform clubs of what the latest restart plan is, originally scheduled for Wednesday evening, has now been pushed back until Friday, giving the SRU some time to reflect and react to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s address to Scottish Parliament on Wednesday afternoon. [Note: the webinar has been postponed until further notice since publication, it is hoped that further Return to Rugby details can be shared next week].
An earlier restart has obvious social, psychological and physical benefits for players and will hopefully allow clubs some valuable oxygen after months of inactivity. It has been pointed out that amateur rugby is back up and running across the globe (including in France, Italy, Germany, Australia and New Zealand) and it has been argued that with an effective track and trace programme, the threat of spreading the virus through rugby clubs can be minimised with early identification and isolation of those who have been exposed.
Mark Cairns, head coach of Currie Chieftains, also made the point on this website recently that sports clubs can play a role in helping reinforce the behaviours we are asking of young people in order to keep themselves and those around them safe.
“We’ve got a bunch of players coming along to Currie on a Tuesday and Thursday who will accept the rules, not because they are exceptional people but because they’ve got a real focus to be part of the team and get back playing the game they love,” he reasoned.
“I have made it very clear to the boys that if any of them are found to be breaking the rules by going to house parties and attending large indoor gatherings then they won’t be welcome at the club because we are in a very, very privileged position and that brings responsibility. So, we as a club, and rugby as a sport, have that ability to help support young people to do something that is productive for their health and wellbeing.”
It is important to note that Cairns, and others who have expressed similar views, are not in the same camp as those – such as the President of the USA – who dismiss the threat of the virus because it is inconvenient to their own agenda. The science is irrefutable, it is a highly infectious and very dangerous disease which has caused a huge amount of suffering, and the only way to completely halt it’s spread would be if everyone were to stay in their own home and have no contact whatsoever with the outside world – but the reality is that people are not doing that now, and are likely to be less inclined to do that in the future, so it is about trying to find a way of living which minimises the threat, and motivates individuals to take appropriate precautions.
“You take that [rugby] away from them then there is going to be unintended consequences,” added Cairns. “I’m not saying all our players will then go and have a massive house party, but I am saying that more would be inclined to do those social things because they don’t have an outlet which rugby and sport in general provides.”
The counter argument is equally compelling. It focusses on the fact that for all the social, psychological and physical value of amateur rugby, it does require close contact between players which we know will spread the disease if there is COVID carrier involved – and the concern is that at the moment the virus is too prevalent throughout society to take that risk.
Current hospital and ICU admission rates for COVID are higher than they have been but are not yet alarming, however, when comparing the trend here to mainland Europe, there is a real danger that the trajectory will continue to rise to a point at which the NHS could be overwhelmed. Rugby has a responsibility to do everything in its power to ease the pressure, and if that means no competitive games for the next few months then the sport – like so many other facets of Scottish life – must find a way to get through it.
Circuit-breaker partial-lockdowns appear to have been identified as the preferred policy for managing the spread of COVID, which means postponed and cancelled matches are likely to dominate any fixture schedule we do get during the remainder of this year. With so much uncertainty and disruption and special measures introduced to minimise the risk, will a pre-Christmas return for competitive rugby really be that much fun?
“If it goes ahead at the end of October then I’m not particularly looking forward to a November or December game in Edinburgh followed by a long trip home in a half empty bus without a shower or a beer after the match,” says Fred Stevenson, a member of the all-conquering Hawick squad at the start of the century, who still pulls on the boots at the grand old age of 42 for East League One side Hawick Harlequins.
The challenge facing rugby in aligning with current COVID protocols were highlighted last weekend when it emerged that three pro players – Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Zander Fagerson and Tom Gordon (both Glasgow Warriors) – had to call-off their respective games because they had been exposed to someone who had been exposed to the virus. Similar issues have arisen across the club landscape, except when players at this level have to isolate it is their day jobs that suffer – which is particularly bad news if you are self-employed.
While some clubs have been forced to close down completely for two weeks, the experience of one Super6 outfit highlights that even if you manage to nip a COVID outbreak in the bud, there will still be knock-on consequences.
Heriot’s were pretty bullish about the October 31st start date up until two weeks ago, having worked hard to pull together a comprehensive operating plan which involves every player being registered to an app to assesses individual risk level, each team in the club (Super6, the ‘Blue’/Club XV and the women’s team) entering Goldenacre through a different gate on training nights, everyone having their temperature taken upon arrival, and all players working in the same pods of no more than 20 players at all times. Then one player reported that they had tested positive to COVID and the rest of his pod had to self-isolate. That got players in different pods questioning whether they were prepared to continue training and risk ending up being stuck in their flat for the next two weeks. Training numbers dropped overnight from over 100 across the whole club to about 60.
There is no absolute right or wrong answers here. The clubs will find out by the end of the week what the immediate future holds – and we strongly suspect that a postponement to league rugby is on the cards. If that is the case, then the planning must start immediately to ensure that we keep people engaged and motivated, so that when rugby does come back, it does so with a bang.
Whatever happens, it will be a true test of the sport, and for some clubs it will be a brutal fight for survival – and the SRU needs to recognise that it is their duty to protect the game at this level in the same way as they are determined to protect the professional tier.
Taking a step back, this can also be an opportunity to reflect on what rugby really means on the ground floor, so that it can emerge on the other side stronger for the experience and with a better sense of what its priorities should really be.