Rugby in the time of coronavirus: an urgent enquiry into the future of rugby union

June 17th. This is the date that football fans in Britain, and across the globe, are looking forward to. The Premier League is returning. Yes, it will be very different. Stadiums will be empty, pubs will be closed, living rooms will be full. It is a ‘new normal’ for top flight English football, but crucially, the beautiful game is coming back to our screens.

For Premiership Rugby supporters? No such luck. 

The excitement of the football fan only compounds the pain of the rugby fan. There is no timeframe for when Premiership Rugby will return. The league has recently rejected the proposals laid out by World Rugby for how the professional game might adapt and restart. Clubs have returned to limited forms of training but the prospect of competitive matches still seems unlikely in the near future.

For the grassroots game, the picture is even more bleak. At this level, rugby is not alone; exercise for all is still limited to groups of 6 or fewer and the idea of contact sport at a non-professional level hardly seems to have been considered.

If the professionals cannot work out how to get rugby started again, then how can community-based teams look to plan for a project restart? It feels like an impossible task. 

If football is anything to go by, then a return to the game will not be easy. 

Test, test, test. That is the tactic of the Premier League and EFL.  

The journey of coronavirus testing in the UK has been turbulent to say the least. Matt Hancock’s ‘Track and Trace’ plan seems to be a move in the right direction in terms of public health, however it does not change the situation of rugby in the time of coronavirus.

Those who show symptoms and those who are vulnerable must of course be prioritised. For everyone else? It comes down to whether you have enough in your pocket.

The Premiership will have to pick up a hefty bill if it wants to follow its footballing counterparts. The Premier League invested over £4,000,000 in testing kits to get the game going again. It is no secret that more money has come into rugby since the CVC group invested in the Premiership in 2019. Nevertheless, it is a large sum to pay up.

And the Premiership may well yet pay up. For the non-professional though, there will be no angel investor. 

Rugby Union has often been stereotyped as the ruffians’ game played by gentlemen. It will come as no surprise to those in the rugby community that participants are not always particularly gentlemanly on the pitch and off the pitch the community as a whole does not enjoy the wealth of an idealistic gentrified society.

As this article develops, it probably becomes more and more clear that I am not a casual commentator on sport, I am somewhat hiding my true interest. 

So, I shall declare my interest now: As the President of Edinburgh University Rugby Football Club, I am deeply perturbed by the lack of action being taken at the highest level of my sport and the worrying implications that it might have on the amateur game. 

In my club, I have over 150 current members who play across Scotland and the rest of Britain at the highest levels of university sport, all of whom harbour the same question: when will I be able to play for my club again?

I generally respond to their question with a series of remarks about how the committee is working hard and that there will definitely be a club for our members to return to once the summer break is over. I firmly believe both of these things to be true: there are lots of people working hard to keep rugby clubs alive and I have faith that they will be successful in their work. Yet I always finish my answer with another question: “In reality, who knows?”

This question, often used rhetorically, I ask with true desire for an answer.

Who at the top level is going to tell me when and how I will be able to return sport to the hands of my members and the people who play the game? Is anyone confident that the problems the game faces can be resolved?

For the moment, the uncertainty of rugby’s return is a minor inconvenience that pales beneath a far more drastic web of problems that Covid-19 weaves in Britain and across the world. Very soon, however, the financial survival and continued existence of rugby clubs will be seriously tested.

Grassroots rugby is built around communities, but fundamentally it is built on the foundation of thirty players and a ball. The rugby community is proud but small. Yes, every Spring the 6 Nations attracts millions of viewers worldwide, but the community that actually plays the game at a local level is far smaller. 

If the governing powers that be cannot reach a consensus on how rugby can safely return, then rugby clubs may begin to fall apart.

Members will not pay membership fees if they cannot play rugby. And thus, the financial core of clubs will crumble. 

There is evidence at the top level that Covid-19 is attacking rugby financially. Rugby Australia recently announced that it has cut a third of its staff in response to pandemic-related issues. Professional rugby is struggling, but it is coping better than amateur rugby.

We need rugby back. We need it in some form, even if it is not rugby as we knew it. We need it soon. 

Of course, and it is tough to say, rugby is a game. It is not just a game. For the people who play and watch the sport, it is a central part of life. Public health comes first and rugby cannot return until it is safe to do so. Nevertheless, immediate action is needed, otherwise rugby union will suffer for a long time after this global pandemic has passed.


Image rights: Kenneth Allen via Geograph Ireland