Ex-World Rugby advisor's grim warning: 'Rugby can only come back to what it was if we have a vaccine'
Barry O’Driscoll these days is very much out of sight, a former World Rugby medical advisor doing what every 76-year-old should be doing during the coronavirus pandemic and keeping themselves to themselves, cocooning and out of harm’s way.
However, when it comes to foreseeing the difficulties that rugby will encounter in trying to restart its stalled sport, the Manchester-based former Ireland international very much has a handle on the myriad of likely difficulties set to be encountered in the weeks and months ahead.
He admires very much what New Zealand have done, clinically shutting down their borders in March and snuffing of the virus to such an extent that they are primed to get back to playing rugby next month, their Super Rugby derby schedule beginning in Dunedin on June 13 and moving on to Auckland the following day.
But the situation remains much more fluid elsewhere, especially in Europe. The French have packed up until September, the Irish are targeting a late August return, while the English just can’t seem to fully get it together yet and permit their clubs the green light to resume training, a negative midweek meeting their latest frustration.
The rugby that does eventually return is also poised to be very different from the game everyone knew and loved before it juddered to a grinding halt nearly three months ago.
It was last week when O’Driscoll, a long-time World Rugby medical advisor, first stuck his head above the parapet in the current climate, warning that rugby’s return-to-play measures must be even tougher than football, the sport his son works in as chief doctor at Arsenal.
The draconian playbook outlined by O’Driscoll suggested uncontested scrums where players wouldn’t even put their heads down, and blowing up rucks and mauls early. Within days it emerged the trade-off could be even much bleaker than that.
With World Rugby open-minded about giving individual unions the options of scrapping scrums and mauls altogether, the London Times reported how the governing body’s law review group are acutely conscious about the high-risk areas of the game being adapted or removed if rugby is to resume in some shape or form in particular countries still hugely troubled by the virus.
O’Driscoll doesn’t feel any vindication in hearing this less than a week after he predicted great change was potentially on the horizon. As a fan, someone who played on the old Five Nations, the situation greatly saddens him but needs much given the prevailing health and safety issues. “Rugby can only come back to what it was if we have a vaccine, an effective vaccine. Until then it won’t be the same game,” he told RugbyPass.
“You don’t want to destroy integral parts of the game, but you don’t have to go too far before it isn’t the rugby that we know really. Do they just do rugby league scrums where they put their hands across on each other’s shoulders more or less and the ball automatically comes back?
“Mauls and rucks will somehow be stopped. The whole point of it is the bodily contact and how the ball is handled so much and moves around. The ball is a great carrier of germs – it’s going all over the field to every player and a huge way to make contact. This is going to change the game more than we can afford to, but one way or another they have got to reduce the mauls, reduce the scrums, reduce the rucks.
“The spread (of the virus) is purely by droplets or direct connect contact with saliva, or contaminated surfaces. In soccer, it’s foot to the ball. But it’s hand to the ball in rugby and guys have been wiping their mouth with their hand, so the ball is going to become a problem as well.
“It will have to be disinfected, sprayed every time it goes into touch. There are all these sorts of things that need to be done to avoid it [the virus] and if there is a second peak there are going to be major problems… young athletes aren’t getting this virus very much, it’s the older people. But you only need one situation (in a match) for a player to go home and somebody else gets it.
World Rugby is reportedly considering dramatic law changes as a way to get the sport running again after the Covid-19 pandemic.https://t.co/xa5jt9yfB0
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 23, 2020
“There will be some players worried about playing and you can’t hold that against them. They are justifiable worries. Some players might be living with parents who are getting on a bit or whatever. They are all sorts of domestic circumstances that might make them more sensitive about getting the virus. As we have seen in soccer already, there have been one or two who have said ‘no thanks, we’re going to stay out of it until we get a bit further on’. You can understand that.
“You can’t stop the contact in rugby and I see in soccer they are going to great pains. Most of the Premier League clubs are back at training in small groups, being tested twice a week, training in groups of four and they don’t even see the next group come in so they are completely separated. It’s very expensive and it’s going to cost rugby quite a lot of money as well.
“Insurance is another big problem. Who is going to insure these players now and how much is it going to cost to insure them?”
Quarantine is another troubling issue, particularly for a cross-border tournament such as the five-nation PRO14 and the biggest money-spinner of all, Test rugby. “You only need two or three of those quarantines and competitions will be messed up a lot,” he said, adding his delight that PRO14 still secured a £120million windfall on Friday with the sale of a tournament stake to CVC Capital Partners, quite a deal given the uncertainty the sport finds itself in.
Game changer! https://t.co/ZjZKWU5vje
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 22, 2020
“That was a good move, I thought these (investment) guys might hold back a bit now and wait to see what happens. PRO14 isn’t depending on just one country. There are five. World Rugby will make their own regs (about travel) but a place like Ireland is involved every week with other countries. There is travel involved. It’s going to be interesting.”
O’Driscoll served as a World Rugby medical advisor for 15 years and was in-situ during the 2003 outbreak of SARS, another virus that came out of the Far East, but it never became part of the daily conversation the way the game-stopping global coronavirus has.
“There wasn’t a big reaction to it. It was nothing compared to this because we just don’t know. Because of social media, because of the way news can be spread now, modern technology, this virus is in the news all the time.
“If we don’t get another peak the next generation they may look back and say this was no worse than the flu epidemic and no more people died, but it is much more dramatic now, much more dramatic because of social media.
'I actually had to retire over a Zoom call. I had all the boys, all the staff and there is me getting emotional'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 26, 2020
“We have had worse pandemics – we are nowhere near the Spanish flu, but every move you make now is spotted and people have to cover their backs. There is no alternative but to go about it this way.”
Being meticulous was how O’Driscoll conducted his rugby business. Cutting corners wasn’t his style and eight years after he stepped away from World Rugby over what he perceived was the lack of importance placed on tackling the thorny issue of concussion, he has no regrets about taking that principled stand to force the debate.
“Rugby has always been part of my life but by the time it got to 2012 I resigned and I felt I had to. I have missed my close contact with the game immensely but I’m very glad I did what I did. I had to do it and in its own small way, it has made things move to where it concussion is now considered very, very seriously.
“It’s eight years and I’m glad I did it. People started looking much more closely and now it’s approached very differently.”