When will sport return?
For a sports-mad country like Ireland, that is a question on many people’s lips at the moment.
Of course, there are bigger and more serious issues which are currently being experienced by many people throughout the land.
Job losses, pay cuts, financial uncertainty and tragically, the loss of loved ones is prevalent. These are difficult times and people are desperate to see some light at the end of the tunnel – a glimmer, a flickering light – something which could indicate the beginning of what we would consider normal.
In the sporting sphere, things have ground to an immediate and sudden halt. But the phrase, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’, couldn’t be more applicable to our grá for sport.
Whatever your passion is; GAA, football, rugby – it doesn’t matter, we’re all feeling the pain at the moment as we wait in anticipation until we can grace the terraces and stands once again or at the very least, watch live action on tv.
The athletes are, of course, impacted too and David McHugh, owner of Lineup Sports, which manages a variety of top sporting talent in Ireland, explains that by their very nature, these sporting professionals are resilient but for a certain few, issues such as the expiry contracts remain a pertinent problem in the context of the current uncertainty.
“We don’t have a crystal ball,” McHugh tells Pundit Arena.
“Obviously the one or two that are uncertain about where they’re playing rugby next year. Those that are out of contract this year. If the season restarts in July and the contract ends in June, are they contractually bound to their club for the period of the time that they’ve missed the game? Or do they make an automatic move?
“Somebody asked me the other day about Alby Mathewson. When will he be able to fly from New Zealand, if they resume rugby in July, will he be playing for Ulster in July? Or would he be delayed because the borders are still closed there? I suppose you’re asking questions nobody really knows the answer to. If we had a crystal ball…”
Star rugby players such as Joey Carbery, James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong and Conor Murray are just some of the big names which McHugh manages. He confirms that they, like the rest of the large cohort which he represents, are coping well in what are difficult circumstances.
“In rugby, most of the guys have structured programmes that they’re working through double session days, some days are down days, an element of running, lifting. A lot of them are doing a lot of the online pilates and stuff which is very deliverable.
“I haven’t spoken to anybody who is struggling with it. Athletes are typically resilient and adaptable. I think everybody is just getting on with what they can do and how they can do it. Awaiting the bigger macro global situation as to when things resume to the new normal.”
That ever-present wait and longing for the “new normal”, as McHugh describes it, is what we’re all experiencing. In a sporting context, as much as it is difficult to stomach, the resumption of the games we hold so dear to the level and circumstances in which we knew them, looks to be a long way off.
Away from Ireland, Bayern Munich players have returned to team training, albeit limited, in what is one of the first signs that things are getting back on track, but in a rugby context, it seems like it will be a lot more difficult to achieve due to the very nature of the sport.
“The million-dollar question is when will sport resume and how phased it will be or how instant it will be? If you see Bayern Munich in Germany returning to training in small groups, non-contact, socially-distancing.
“It’s probably easier for football than it is for rugby. The longer we’re in isolation, I guess no matter how fit you stay… how many weeks preseason and conditioning do you need before players are capable of returning to contact rugby?”
Uncertainty doesn’t solely exist for on-field matters. Off the pitch and from a business perspective, world sport and rugby, in particular, is haemorrhaging money.
The highest priority for World Rugby at the moment and the unions in both the northern and southern hemispheres is to get international Test matches played, even if it’s behind-closed-doors, as the revenue generated from these fixtures secures the financial stability of the game.
Lineup Sports are linked with eSportif, the global rugby management agency and McHugh explains that this partnership aids them with keeping an eye on the various developments which are occurring around the world.
In terms of getting Test rugby back on track, even if this was possible, it would likely lead to a number of ramifications, particularly for clubs who will likely experience less availability of their international players or could potentially see a delay in their competitions.
“We’re conscious of everything that’s happening globally and all the potential scenarios that are being presented by the home unions. Ultimately, the game survives on gate receipts, sponsorship and television rights. If there was a scenario for instance that’s been discussed, that the Six Nations is resumed, the summer tour goes ahead and the Autumn Tests go ahead, you could see a scenario where there are seven or eight Test games to be played pre-Christmas.
“The knock-on effect to that to club rugby means that you might not see the European Cup starting until after Christmas. Obviously, if there are large numbers of players involved in Test rugby, then clubs which have strength and depth, like Leinster at the moment, can probably survive without adding new contracts to it or may retain players that might have retired, or that might have moved.”
But of course, there are so many questions which are currently without answer which casts so much of this in doubt.
“And even will clubs be allowed to travel? Will a French club be allowed to travel to Dublin? Will an English club be allowed to travel to Toulon? We just don’t know. And what restrictions will be placed around them? Will they have to quarantine for two weeks before they play a game? Will there be spectators or no spectators?
“Will you have to minimise the backroom team travelling? Will you have to fly commercial or private?
“There are so many different scenarios and I think every home union and every club is contingency planning and working through scenarios that may or may not happen. So that they are best positioned to press play whenever the time comes.”
Planning for the unknown and the unpredictable.
The new normal.