Rugby officially received the green light to return to the pitch earlier this month, but real games – or something resembling them – are still a long way off.
That’s the message Bayside Rugby Club president Kevin Whitmarsh took from BC Rugby’s return-to-play policy, which was released July 7 and lists a number of new rules and regulations for rugby clubs to follow as they re-engage after a months-long COVID-19-related shutdown.
Any form of tackle rugby is currently still not allowed, and even touch rugby is still forbidden, Whitmarsh said, adding that he wasn’t surprised by much in the return-to-play plan.
“Essentially, we definitely won’t be playing any sort of contact rugby until next year, and that’s what we were expecting to hear.”
Surrey Beavers’ player Paul Kelly echoed Whitmarsh’s feelings in an interview with Black Press Media earlier this month.
“It’s nice to see a plan,” he said. “But it won’t look like the sport we know until probably the fall of 2021.”
In the meantime, Whitmarsh said they’ll “make lemonade out of these lemons” and are forming a plan that would see Bayside players – at both the youth and senior levels – return to action in new formats.
One of the new regulations is a ban on activities between different clubs, which rules out games even if touch rugby was allowed. However, Whitmarsh said the junior/youth levels will focus on skill development and practice when programs return later this summer, while plans for senior teams are still being considered, but “we’re getting creative.”
— BC Rugby (@bcrugbyunion) July 13, 2020
One likely option for Bayside’s adult players, Whitmarsh said, would be an in-house touch rugby league, with player drafts, weekly standings and “anything else we can do to make it feel like a real product even though you’re not playing other teams.”
BC Rugby’s plan includes five phases, and Whitmarsh is hopeful touch rugby could be allowed possibly by late August, with something near contact – perhaps tackling, but without scrums – allowed to go ahead in 2021, though he admits that is “an optimistic guess” at this point.
According to the plan, full-contact rugby would only return in Phase 5 – when a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 is available.
“Rugby is coming back but it’s up to all of us to make sure it’s brought back in a safe and responsible manner,” Annabel Kehoe, B.C. Rugby CEO, said in a news release.
“While we won’t be returning to full-contact rugby for the foreseeable future, we’re excited to support clubs delivering modified training before progressing to non-contact rugby.”
Kelly suggested that “it’s gonna be a challenge to keep players interested” without traditional games, and while Whitmarsh agreed that some players may continue to sit out – and some longtime senior players may retire altogether – he’s also optimistic that a casual fall program will bring new players out of the woodwork.
He always expects that some players will be itching to come back, and will return with vigor and renewed excitement.
“Our guess is it’ll be kind of a wash,” he said. “You can see that (enthusiasm) on our internal Facebook pages – people are itching to get back. So we think a lot of people will come back revitalized. But at the same time, there will be some people who were maybe just hanging on at the end (before the pandemic) and this may have been the last straw for them to say ‘OK, time to hang ‘em up,’” he said.
“Sometimes if you have a forced break, you fill your time with other activities and maybe you realize you like those other activities. So we’re prepared for that, but we’d love to supplement some of that lose with this trial period here in the fall that will hopefully bring out new bodies.
“Because you can’t run a successful rugby club with the same 15 people every year.”
With competitive action – touch or tackle – pushed to 2021 at the earlier, Whitmarsh also noted that it could be a good opportunity for local clubs, and the BC Rugby Union league as a whole, to adjust its competitive senior schedule permanently, moving from a fall-to-spring setup to one that begins in the spring and wraps up in the summer.
Bayside’s senior men’s coach Andy Blackburn first floated the idea in an interview with PAN back in April, citing numerous benefits, including better weather.
Whitmarsh admitted it might be difficult to get every B.C. club on board.
“This new (reality) kind of aligns with what we’ve wanted for awhile now… but it seems split 50-50 – a lot of clubs say, ‘No way, there’s no way we’ll get field space in the summer.’ So I don’t know what will happen.”
Whitmarsh was also hopeful that football – which also recently received the go-ahead to return, with a bevy of new safety guidelines – could provide a road map for rugby, considering minor football will be returning, with full contact, when the season begins on Labour Day weekend.
“Maybe football will be a great example for us. Maybe that will be the test case that makes BC and Canada Rugby happy with a full-contact product come spring. Maybe they see that there was no (virus) transfer through football and we can (return to full contact).”
– with files from Malin Jordan