Premiership Rugby has refused to rule out extending its mid-season break beyond two weeks with league officials revealing they will hold talks with the government before fixtures resume.
Amid growing fears that the government is set to reconsider whether to allow elite sport to continue during the current lockdown, the PRL rugby director Phil Winstanley acknowledged that “from a public health perspective, there are serious concerns about sport at the moment”, just days after the league announced a two-week circuit-breaker.
The decision to take a break came after two rounds of both European competitions were postponed – they have subsequently been cancelled – due to fears within the French government over the new Covid variant, leaving a two-week window in the club calendar.
Several directors of rugby, as well as broadcasters BT Sport, initially wanted Premiership matches moved forward to fill the gap but Winstanley said: “It made absolutely no sense to bring games forward when [the virus] is at its highest prevalence and highest risk.”
Asked if he was confident Premiership matches would resume at the end of the month, Winstanley said: “It is constant engagement with Public Health England and the DCMS [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport]. We have all the internal management groups with the [Rugby Players’ Association] and the RFU are continually monitoring the situation, continually getting feedback from independent experts around our testing programme and continually engaging with the authorities in the DCMS and PHE [Public Health England]. Like everybody else, we are reacting to an extremely difficult landscape that has not been experienced with anyone else before.”
Already five of the last 18 Premiership matches have been cancelled and extending the current break could mean either calling off more fixtures or considering reintroducing midweek matches, as happened over the summer last season. That resumption came in mid-August with rugby union the last mainstream sport to return after the March lockdown despite claims from the PRL chief executive, Darren Childs that the aim was to be “the first sport back on TV”.
A key factor in that delay was the close contact nature of the sport and on Thursday, the Rugby Football Union confirmed that the women’s Premier 15s would also be taking a break until the end of the month, significantly adding that it would “continue to review and evaluate” the fluid situation.
Last week PRL introduced a series of stricter Covid protocols the clubs must adhere to – including no face-to-face celebrations and no indoor meetings – in an effort to limit the risk of transmission of the virus though there were 18 positive cases from nine clubs this week. Winstanley added that 70 players across the last three weeks had tested positive and that at a recent meeting with PHE, he was told that one in 30 people in south-west London – home to two of the 12 clubs – are carrying the virus. “We’re engaged on a regular basis with PHE and DCMS,” he said. “We’re obviously in the middle of a pandemic, you only need to look at the news at night to see what massive pressure the NHS is under.”