NEWS out of Twickenham on Thursday night about the RFU postponing all competitive rugby at grassroots level in England until January 2021 at the earliest has raised fears north of the border that this will nudge Murrayfield into a similar response to the rapidly escalating number of COVID cases being reported in Scotland.
Concern has focussed on the damage this will do to club sustainability in the short term, and to player numbers in the slightly longer term. This anxiety is entirely understandable, but, in the face of the biggest public health crisis in a generation, protecting lives and the NHS must be prioritised ahead of protecting a sport … if it is an either-or scenario.
However, there is a more positive argument for continuing to drive towards the current 31st October target date for restarting the Scottish club game, which not only relates to what sport can offer young people in terms of physical and mental wellbeing, but also how sport is actually helping to fight the continued spread of a virus which has already taken so much from us.
“I understand that COVID is a horrendous virus which has affected lots of lives and caused many deaths so in no way does anyone in club rugby want to undermine that,” explained Currie Chieftains head coach Mark Cairns. “However, I do believe that sport – and particularly outdoor sport – is playing a vital role in stopping the spread of the virus, and I really hope that the Scottish Government and the relevant sporting governing bodies are thinking about that as they try to navigate a way through this horrendous situation.
“To give an example, on Thursday night we had just under 50 players training at Currie with an age-range of 17 through to about 30, but 90 percent were under the age of 22,” he continued.
“Now, if you take that age category of 17 to 22, that is the group which we are hearing all about on the news for having house parties and spreading the illness, but I know that 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 – although I think most of them are – but because they’ve got a real focus to be part of the team and get back playing the game they love.
“I made it very clear to the boys on Thursday night 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.
“You take that away from them – by postponing the season or getting them to play something that doesn’t really resemble rugby – then there is going to be unintended consequences. 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.”
Cairns points out that there is no real evidence of COVID being spread disproportionately in the sporting environment, with the most notable instances which have been linked with sports clubs relating to a very small minority of players putting themselves at risk out-with training and games.
By having players regularly attending training and games, clubs are able to monitor individuals physically and psychologically to nip potential problems in the bud, as well as reinforce the key messages about what they need to do to keep themselves safe from infection.
“I remember when I was a student at Loughborough, I had my longest injury which was a five month lay-off with a broken eye socket,” Cairns recalls. “I was impacted by that. I didn’t study as well without that discipline that rugby gave me, I was socialising a lot more and I wasn’t as healthy. Rugby gave me the discipline I needed in my life to keep me on the straight and narrow, to give me that structure, and as soon as I got back to rugby my studying got better, my health got better and my wellbeing was better.
“So, we’ve really got to consider the wellbeing of these boys and girls because we are taking a lot away from them, but rugby gives them a lot to look forward to.”
Cairns stresses that while his focus is on rugby, the logic holds true for all sports.
“I worry that there will be a domino effect,” he says. “It will only take one sport to say they are shutting things down for other sports to follow suit, and that’s a big concern because then you have thousands of young people left in limbo.
“I can’t emphasise enough how well I think the SRU have handled this crisis with their road-map to get our club game back up and running – and the clubs have done a tremendous job in following the guidelines – and I just want it to continue,” he concludes. “Suppressing this horrible, deadly virus has got to be the priority and I think rugby and sport has a vital role to play in that.”