Allan Massie: Normal life will have to return before contact sports can be played again

Social distancing makes it impossible to prepare for rugby never mind play matches

Like every other ground in Scotland, Myreside – home of Watsonians – is deserted, with little prospect of rugby being played any time soon. Picture: SNS/SRU

The official announcement of the cancellation of Scotland’s summer internationals in South Africa and New Zealand will have surprised nobody but a purblind optimist, even if news of the proposed resumption of domestic rugby in these countries in a month or two may be taken as welcome evidence that some day normal life will be permitted again.

It looks a long way off, however. You are now allowed to play golf in England but not in Scotland or Wales. Yet reading a delightful account by Vic Marks, former Somerset and England off-spinner, now the Guardian’s cricket correspondent, of his first day’s golf at Okehampton in Devon, makes it clear just what a small tentative step back to normality has been taken. The clubhouse was still closed. Shoes had to be changed in the car park. Players were required to maintain social distance – not always difficult if one slices and the other hooks. There were no rakes in bunkers, and it was forbidden to touch the flagpole on the green. The hole itself was, I think,stuffed with some material so that the ball didn’t drop, and you weren’t, if conceding a hole, permitted to pick up your opponent’s ball and toss it to him in time-honoured manner.

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Meanwhile, cricket may resume in July with Test matches against the West Indies played behind spectators. Cricket is a game of limited bodily contact, much of it unnecessary. Even the fashion of bowlers and fielders engaging in an excited hugging session when a wicket falls is quite a recent one. All the same, reading about the instructions given to players when they return to training makes it clear that there are lots of nervously-careful prohibitions. Players for instance will be issued with their own personal box of cricket balls and must touch only these and prevent anyone else from doing so. As for actual play when this is eventually permitted, well, one wonders. If golfers aren’t allowed to touch the flagpole, who is going to be allowed to replace a stump that a bowler has sent 
flying?

These restrictions placed on non-contact or light and occasional contact sports rather dampen hope for the return of rugby or football, both games in which physical contact is essential, not only in actual matches but also in training. As long as politicians and health experts insist on the maintaining of social distancing as an essential part in the struggle to prevent the spread of the virus, it is obviously impossible even to prepare for rugby, let alone play matches.

Of course if the number of cases of Covid-19 continues to fall and if the death rate subsides, then, sometime this summer, politicians, making it clear that they are relying on medical advice – something which will, they may hope, make it clear that the buck stops some way short of reaching them – will feel secure enough to relax restrictions; and this might indeed happen quite quickly.

It is quite possible, too, that people – that is to say, the general public – returning to work and starting to lead more normal lives, will gradually take matters into their own hands and return to something like normal sociability. If this happens, and it seems likely, and if – which is a bigger if – this doesn’t lead to a rise in infection and a second wave of cases and consequent deaths, then the prospects for a return of rugby and other physical contact sports, would surely become brighter. To put it bluntly, if people are using public transport on which social distancing has become impossible, and if they are again hugging their friends and making love to people from whom they have been separated for months, and there are no, or very few, dire consequences, then it would appear that the people have taken the lead and the politicians would feel obliged to follow.

In such circumstances the case for a return of rugby, even if at first only without spectators, would be powerful, all the more so if its resumption in New Zealand and Australia was evidently successful.

This then is the most optimistic scenario: that the general public, each member exercising what seems to be careful judgement, leads the way back to normal social relations.

To put it another way, there is little chance of rugby being played until most people, and, I would say, all young and middle-aged people, have themselves returned to normal life – that is, life without most of the restrictions rightly imposed in the early weeks of the epidemic.

One must recognise that there may be bad times still to come. A spokesman for the World Health Organisation has gloomily forecast a second surge of Covid-19 cases in the autumn or winter. At worst that might mean no rugby this coming season. One can only hope the WHO warning is a false alarm.

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