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Men's Rugby Union Rugby during lockdown could be a scrumless game

IT WAS a major factor in South Africa winning the World Cup last year, has long been part of the rugby DNA of national teams such as England and Argentina, and is a source of fascination — even bemusement — for many of the sport’s casual observers.

The scrum is that highly physical, often-brutal engagement between two competing packs of eight players that is revered by some as a key tenet of the game.

The game could have a different feel to it in some countries when rugby returns after the coronavirus pandemic.

World Rugby, the sport’s governing body, is considering law proposals to reduce the amount of contact between players in a game in the hope of reducing the risk of possible transmission of Covid-19.

Any changes would be optional, temporary and territory-specific, depending on the prevalence of the virus at the time and location of the game.

The proposed changes are focused on areas where there is most exposure to high contact — namely scrums, mauls and rucks. Scrum re-sets, which happen dozens of times a game for all kinds of reasons, are a particularly target.

World Rugby does not intend to alter the fundamental fabric of the game — the measures are not meant to be radical, and are most likely to benefit community rugby — but there is potential for them to stymie the effectiveness of significant facets of the sport.

“You are eroding a big part of what rugby is all about, aren’t you?” Barry O’Driscoll, a former medical adviser to the world governing body, said.

In the efforts to limit contact, O’Driscoll doubted whether scrums would be allowed to re-set if they collapse, and believes the ball would have to be put in immediately by the scrumhalf. He said it could get to the stage where there are uncontested scrums at certain levels of the game.

“The set scrum, if one side gets on top, can win games for a team,” O’Driscoll, an ex-Ireland international, said. “Psychologically, it’s very stressful and damaging for the opposing side.”

Rugby, in general, has “huge” issues compared with, for example, football, O’Driscoll said, simply because the ball touches players’ hands so often and that’s a way Covid-19 is transmitted. He says the ball may have to be constantly changed and disinfected.

Pat Parfrey, a World Rugby council member who is a leading official for Rugby Canada, said he couldn’t contemplate the game going ahead at international level without its usual scrums, rucks and mauls.

“The game is all about continuity,” he said, “so I think that would be a totally different game.”

In New Zealand, which has limited the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 to 1,154 and deaths to 21, a domestic Super Rugby tournament is set to begin on June 13, marking the first major club competition since the suspension of rugby union in March. Organisers say it will be played under traditional laws.

“There don’t appear to be any signs of community transmission in New Zealand so … we don’t anticipate the need to adopt the law proposals,” New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson said. “We have been open with World Rugby about this and they understand our unique situation.”

The situation is likely to be different in parts of Europe and north America, where countries are only starting to ease lockdown restrictions. The Premier League has yet to announce when it will be resuming, and rugby is unlikely to return in Ireland for several months.

Parfrey, who is also a leading clinical epidemiologist in Canada, said an activity like tag rugby — a non-contact version of the sport where a tackle is made by pulling a tag off the belt of the opponent who has the ball — could “initiate the club game” at amateur level.

“But when you go to the international game, it’s a totally different ball game,” he said. “The fact that international rugby refers to contact between countries, and the prevalence of the virus will be different between countries, it is unlikely that we are going to be in a position of no virus in the globe.

“So it’s going to be a difficult time until we get a vaccine, I think.”

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