England are still planning for Test matches against southern hemisphere opposition in November, with a first-ever home-and-away Six Nations among the back-up options for the autumn.
The international rugby calendar has been turned on its head by the coronavirus outbreak, with this year’s Six Nations yet to finish, the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship unlikely to start on schedule in August – if it does at all – and the fate of the lucrative November Test fixtures still up in the air.
“The preference of both the north and south is that the original programme will go ahead,” Bill Sweeney, chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, said yesterday of the autumn internationals.
“But, of course, that is driven a lot by international travel restrictions and guidelines. Both of us are developing our own back-up and contingency plans for that.”
England are scheduled to play New Zealand, Tonga, Australia and Argentina on successive weekends at Twickenham in November, but the country has the highest official daily death rate of any nation in Europe at present.
Lockdown restrictions are being gradually eased, but there are still social-distancing guidelines in place and air passengers arriving in Britain from Monday face a mandatory two-week quarantine period. Although some sports have started up, there is no imminent prospect of rugby being played in the country.
The Six Nations teams have been looking at alternative ideas if southern hemisphere countries do not visit this November. One of them is expanding the Six Nations schedule, so that the 2021 edition starts this autumn and teams play each other home and away for the first time in the competition’s history.
The proposal was raised by Italian rugby leaders in a media call on Wednesday, and Sweeney confirmed it was one of the options being evaluated.
“It is possible,” Sweeney said. “Our plans are for an autumn series to go ahead – who it is against, at the moment, we cannot give 100 per cent certainty. But we are planning on autumn internationals taking place.”
Given the restrictions still in place in Britain, the RFU cannot be sure if Twickenham would be closed to spectators if the November Tests do go ahead.
Sweeney said scenarios have been drawn up for four potential models: Games in empty stadiums, games with social-distancing guidelines of one or two metres, and games in full stadiums.
“It goes back to that topic of living in a world of uncertainty, doesn’t it?” he said.
Sweeney said conversations about a new global calendar, bringing the countries from the northern and southern hemisphere into combined tournaments, have been ongoing for more than two months.
Discussions are taking place four or five times a week, he said. “If we can get that over the line in whatever shape or form that comes, it will be a major achievement that this crisis has enabled us, or facilitated us, to get to,” said Sweeney, who is one of six people in a working group on the topic.
Sweeney has previously said that even if the autumn Tests go ahead, the RFU still stands to lose around £32 million in revenue in the next financial year.
He stressed yesterday this “is not a 12-month bump in the road and a return to normality very quickly.”
“This is a much more longer-term fix,” he said. “The consequences and the impact of this crisis will be with us for some considerable time and depending on which scenario you pick, it is either three, four, or five years, or maybe slightly more.”
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