By John O’Sullivan 

 

 Connacht Rugby, pending government approval, are committed to restarting domestic rugby in the opening months of 2021. 

 

The ongoing global pandemic saw the tail end of the 2019/2020 domestic campaign curtailed and the beginning of the 2020/2021 season postponed after a few weeks of play.

 

However, thanks to the success of initiatives such as the TotalHealthPharmacy Skillzone summer camps and the high level of compliance to the rules among players, volunteers, coaches,  schools, and clubs,  Connacht are confident that they can run a domestic season within governmental restrictions 

 

Richard Doyle, club and competition support executive at Connacht Rugby, was at hand to answer some frequently asked questions on Connacht’s strategy — in conjunction with the IRFU, the government, and Sport Ireland — on the possible resumption of domestic action at the beginning of next year. 

 

 

Are youths, schools, and adult rugby all included in any proposals for the resumption of domestic rugby?

 

“Absolutely. Our goal is to get all sections of the game back on the playing field as early as possible in 2021. Connacht Rugby and the IRFU understand the importance of sport in these challenging times and we know what a boost it would be for people’s mental and physical well-being if they can begin to enjoy playing matches again so we are 100% committed to restarting the season for everyone. Of course, it is essential that this is achieved in a safe way and that rugby plays its part in controlling the virus in our communities so we will follow the direction provided by the government at all times. Many of our club and school teams have been back in training since July or August 2020 so we understand that they are keen to begin playing fixtures again but we also know that they are very realistic about the unprecedented situation facing the country at the moment so I believe there is a realisation out there that we need to manage the return to play extremely carefully once government give us the green light to proceed.”

 

Noting the successful running of the Totalpharmacy Skillzone summer caps, are Connacht Rugby confident they can run games under the limits of governmental restrictions?

 

“The Total Health Pharmacy Skillzone Summer Camps were run during the very early stages of the IRFU Return to Play Roadmap and at a time when we were all learning how to deal with the practical implications of the virus. The fact that Ross Mannion and his team were able to deliver these sessions so professionally and efficiently gave us all a lot of confidence moving forward. During this same period, the majority of the clubs were in the Covid Safety Planning stage of the roadmap which saw them undertake Covid training, appoint Covid managers, and create a Covid safety plan and risk assessment. It was great to see at that time that clubs were already planning to implement many of the same practical measures around their own activities. As we then moved to the start of the season and the return of matches in September it was clear that compliance with Covid protocols was high within our clubs and schools and that players, parents, volunteers, and referees were all buying into what needed to be done to ensure the safe running of matches. The start of the season got off to a really positive start, the ECS, the Cawley Cup, the Curley Cup, and the J2 10 a Side Cup all got underway and we also had a lot of friendly matches played at age-grade level. Again, compliance with the necessary protocols was really high from all concerned and we actually had very few competitive games affected by Covid when the season was halted in October. All of these factors give us great confidence that we can still  run a safe and successful season in conjunction with our clubs and schools.”

 

Will there possibly be a revised schedule and the season shortened?

 

“There certainly will be revised season structures across the various sections once we can restart playing matches due to the significant number of weeks we have lost due to the Covid shutdown. This is an unpredictable and ever-changing situation so it is important that we are adaptable and are ready to react to changes in circumstances as they happen. It is too early to say at this point exactly what that will entail for youth rugby, school rugby, and adult rugby. Various plans are being worked on by the relevant staff and committees in the background and we will be in a position to put these plans in place quite quickly once we get some clarity around a restart date from the government. We are also in regular contact with the IRFU and the other provinces to share ideas and align our approaches wherever possible. In many ways we have never had such a high level of clear and regular contact between the provinces and the IRFU in relation to planning competitions, much of this is thanks to Kevin Beggs and his team and this may well be one really positive consequence of the pandemic.

 

Although this will undoubtedly be a strange season with changes to regular competition formats we still believe it can be a really enjoyable one. The focus will certainly be more on participation, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are in the middle of a global pandemic so we need to treat every game we get played between now and the end of the season as a bonus. However, that’s not to say that there won’t be meaningful games that get people excited, we have lots of ideas around potential formats that I believe people will be enthused by”.

 

Many clubs in Connacht successfully ran underage and adult training sessions during the lockdowns, is the organisation pleased with the clubs and it’s volunteers compliance?

 

“I think the dedication shown by our club and school volunteers has really shown through this season, especially while we were in the higher levels of restrictions. The pandemic has taken away many of the normal things we love to do every week so ensuring that players could continue to train with their mates was really important in maintaining a sense of normality. In the absence of matches and with the increased workload due to extra safety protocols around sessions volunteers could be forgiven for feeling less motivated but this simply hasn’t been the case. They faced the situation with enthusiasm and ingenuity to make the most of things and to provide a really important outlet within their communities. Clubs and schools have complied with everything that has been asked of them and in many cases, they have gone above and beyond.”

 

Is there a possibility that postponed competitions — such as the Cawley Cup — will resume?

 

“At this moment in time, the intention is to pick up where we left off in terms of adult competitions and bring the Cawley Cup, the Curley Cup, and the J2 10’s Cup to a conclusion. This is also the intention of the IRFU in relation to the Energia Community Series. However, we all recognise that the situation is changeable and plans may need to adapt as we gain a better insight into the government’s plans around restarting sporting fixtures. We have kept in regular contact with our adult teams and we will certainly keep them fully informed as and when we have more information in the New Year. In terms of youth and school rugby, no competitions had gotten underway when the season was paused in October so the situation is slightly different in those sections. We are discussing various options on what the restart may entail within those sections and we will of course keep our clubs and schools informed once we are in a position to solidify these plans. It is important within all sections that our own plans align with the guidelines that the IRFU and government put in place around the reopening of sport so we won’t be publishing anything officially until we are sure that is the case.”

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