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Coronavirus leaves Six Nations’ fate in balance at Paris meet

Ireland’s Six Nations match with Italy has been postponed due to the new coronavirus after a meeting between the Irish Government and the IRFU © AFP / Vincenzo PINTO

LONDON, United Kingdom, Mar 2The future of the 2020 Six Nations Championship is set to be decided at a meeting in Paris on Monday amid fears the coronavirus could wreck this season’s edition.

An already scheduled World Rugby gathering in the French capital will now also see officials consider if more alterations are needed to the final two rounds of the Championship, with the March 7 meeting between Ireland and Italy in Dublin already postponed by the global COVID-19 outbreak.

No replacement date has yet been set, with the Championship scheduled to conclude with matches involving all six teams on March 14.

The Irish Rugby Football Union postponed their match against Italy following consultations with Simon Harris, Ireland’s health minister.

Harris had expressed his misgivings about the game going ahead due to deaths from the new coronavirus in Italy, the European Union country that has been hit hardest by the outbreak.

Table-toppers France are the only team left in this season’s Six Nations that can complete a Grand Slam.

But even if they win their remaining fixtures, away to Scotland this coming weekend and at home to Ireland on March 14 to put the destiny of the title beyond doubt, administrators will still want the Ireland-Italy match, and any other postponed fixtures, to be played rather than called off completely.

The IRFU could lose an estimated 10 million euros (£8.6 million) in revenue if the Italy match is not played.

And with the window for earning ranking points ahead of the draw for the 2023 World Cup in France closing in November, there is a further incentive beyond purely financial concerns to play any held over matches.

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There is a precedent for rescheduling Six Nations fixtures due to health concerns.

In 2001, due to the highly contagious livestock foot and mouth outbreak, Ireland had three matches (against Scotland, Wales and England) rescheduled to September/October of that year.

At the time of the postponements, England were one win away from the Grand Slam but lost 20-14 to Ireland when their delayed fixture was eventually played in Dublin, although they did still win the title despite that defeat.

– ‘Momentum‘ –

Former utility back Austin Healey, a member of that England side, said he feared France could suffer a similar fate after the gap between the initial four matches and the delayed fixture in October “undoubtedly cost us the chance of a Slam”.

“When you are playing in the Six Nations, you become a really tight-knit group and get on a roll, gaining momentum,” wrote Healey in a recent Daily Telegraph column.

“Then you disband for a few months and have to get everybody back together for almost a reunion tour.”

But rescheduling matches is now an even harder task, given how much more congested the rugby union calendar has become in the intervening 19 years.

Weighty issue – Italy great Sergio Parisse could miss out on another Test farewell © AFP / Anne-Christine POUJOULAT

For example, every weekend between now and mid-July features existing club matches across European leagues or already scheduled internationals.

The first weekend without matches in the English Premiership or the Pro14, the former Celtic League, is June 27.

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But that is when summer tours begin, with England meant to travelling to Japan that day, and Ireland to Australia.

Premiership Rugby Limited has an agreement with the Rugby Football Union to release England players for any reschedule international fixtures, but that does not apply to representatives of other nations.

Sergio Parisse saw his planned farewell to Test rugby wrecked last year when Italy’s final pool game of the World Cup in Japan was cancelled as a result of Super Typhoon Hagibis.

That led the 36-year-old, a veteran of 142 Tests, to target the Six Nations match against England in Rome on March 14 as a new date for his swansong, even though the Toulon back row, arguably Italy’s greatest player, has yet to feature in this season’s Championship.

The last time the tournament failed to be completed was in 1972, when Scotland and Wales refused to travel to Ireland for matches in the then Five Nations, because they feared they would be a target for terror-group violence.

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