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Why rugby will need to determine where it fits in a complex broader picture

Heyneke Meyer during a photocall session on January 27, 2012 in Cape Town, South Africa..Heyneke Meyer was annouced as the new Springboks coach.
Heyneke Meyer during a photocall session on January 27, 2012 in Cape Town, South Africa..Heyneke Meyer was annouced as the new Springboks coach.
Image: Carl Fourie / Gallo Images

Former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer often reminded how rugby is no sport for the faint-hearted.

“Rugby is not a contact sport‚ it is a collision sport‚” he opined.

The velocity individuals hurtle towards each other with no intention of last moment avoidance has placed rugby in a realm where its combatants are almost as expendable as the men who used to emerge from the dimly lit bowels of the Colosseum.

It’s gladiatorial leanings have come at a cost and increasingly player safety is driven higher up the agenda. Player safety is also at the forefront of discussions that will determine whether the sport can be practiced and played without adding to Covid-19’s infection rate.

Rugby‚ by its very nature‚ demands a high degree of unsubtle physical interaction and the sport stands at odds with the concept of social distancing.

How are 16 lumbering forwards supposed to avoid each other when it is in fact their primary duty to come to grips and out-muscle those who stand directly in their path?

How do you dispossess an opponent without engaging in physical confrontation? When society at large is required to practice social distancing‚ how exactly will scrums come to their natural conclusion?

Before dates are fixed for the potential return of Super Rugby and the Springboks’ mid-year Tests‚ the sport will need to determine where it fits into a complex broader picture.

Thankfully it is a question that is not just in the sport’s court but the government’s Covid-19 task team and some of the game’s top sports medicine practitioners are also on the case.

“Two things determine when rugby can be played again‚” said Dr Jon Patricios‚ a long-time respected sports medic.

“Government regulations will determine whether you can train outdoors or in groups‚ what distance you keep‚ whether you are allowed to have team sport‚ whether you are allowed to engage in contact in collision sport. That will be a big regulatory factor.”

Patricios is part of a tea m formulating guidelines rugby has to follow if it is to get the green light to return to the field. There is of course the possibility it might not if a lid is not kept on the rate of infection.

“There is research that shows that transmission during exercise occurs over a greater distance than at rest‚ which makes sense‚” said Patricios.

“If you are having a cup of coffee with someone sitting across from you‚ you know that the two-metre rule applies.

“However‚ if you are running next to me on the road at a velocity of 10-12km/h and you have a cough that will cover six metres. The guideline is actually six metres for sport. The social distancing is actually harsher for active individuals.

“That allows you to play tennis‚ but maybe that doesn’t allow you to run or cycle in groups and it definitely doesn’t allow you to play rugby or soccer. There is a huge unknown out there and a lot will depend on what the regulations tell us.”

Patricios said if the regulations have at the forefront of their strategy the minimisation of the transmission of Covid-19 then team sports cannot be played. Rugby in particular‚ runs this risk.

“Rugby must be almost at the bottom of the list of the return to play sports. In rugby you are deliberately seeking contact. You can just think of the transmission of bodily fluids in a scrum.

"Sportsmen spit‚ cough and splutter. That is just how it is. You run and your chest opens up and you release some phlegm. It happens. It is not ideal at all.”