The Six Nations starts this week and while questions persist about who England should play at scrum half or if Cameron Redpath is ready for international rugby, a far more important question remains: should the tournament be going ahead?
New, more transmissible and deadlier, strains of coronavirus are sweeping through Europe and taking hold. Countries have been forced to retreat into lockdown and the importance of sports, principally those involving international travel, is being questioned.
An international tournament involving players and coaching staff from six different countries appears a hot bed for transmission. The tournament could even become that thing most feared, ‘a super spreader event’.
National governments have therefore deemed it necessary to scrupulously inspect the safety measures employed by other countries. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup were suspended at the beginning of January due to the French government’s concerns regarding international travel. The Six Nations looked in jeopardy too as in that same week the French sports minister then demanded to see details of virus containment plans in England and Ireland before allowing ‘Les Bleus’ to participate in the Six Nations.
France only confirmed their participation last week, much to the relief of the tournament organisers. Ben Morel, head of the Six Nations, is aware of the size of the task that awaits but believes the tournament’s organising committee have prepared aptly.
Morel, speaking on Wednesday, said: “We have reinforced our testing protocols, with the main point being we are doubling up on the testing and in the week prior to entering the international camp.
“Generally, elite sport benefits from widespread exemptions and what we are awaiting is the detail on the exemption.”
Further liaison with national governments will be required but Morel remains positive about the tournament being completed in the allotted time, even if some logistical gymnastics are required to conclude the competition.
For players and coaches the reality is another two months in a bubble. For England this will be their toughest bubble yet. The impact of living in these conditions is not to be sniffed at and they have instructed Dr Andrea Furst, the psychologist, to remain in the camp full-time.
At England’s camp all meetings will be outdoors, socialising will be limited and they will only return home twice; for half a week after the Italy game, on 13th February, and for a full week after the Wales game, on 27th February. Given these circumstances some of those selected have declined the invitation. Esteemed England prop Joe Marler is the high-profile example.
Marler tweeted last Monday: “Always grateful for the opportunity so not an easy decision but want to do right by my family in these crazy times and won’t be meeting up with the squad for this tournament.”
Put simply, some things are bigger than sport and Marler’s decision demonstrates the inescapable nature of the pandemic. As someone with three children and who has spoken publicly about his battles with depression in the past, he clearly feels that being in a strict bubble away from his family is something that he cannot do, even if it means passing up on the opportunity to add to his 60 caps for England.
Matteo Minozzi, the young Italian and Wasps full back is another player who will not play in this tournament as he stated that his physical and mental well-being could not cope with another two months in a bubble.
The examples of Marler and Minozzi illustrate the tight rope sports walk as they soldier on despite the pandemic. Sport offers escapism and entertainment to the public, but should they continue if it puts such a strain on the mental well-being of those involved and risk transmission?
Eddie Jones, England head coach, believes they should and radiated positivity when speaking about the role that the Six Nations, and sports generally, can play in society during the pandemic.
Jones said: “Elite sport has been given an opportunity to do something to help society get through this.
“We play a small role, but I think it’s a significant role. You’ve got to understand that we are grateful for this opportunity.
“It’s a tough time for society and we want to make sure that, because we’ve got this opportunity to do something special, we do it with a lot of gratitude, a lot of desire and a lot of enthusiasm.”
Those involved in the tournament believe in the importance of it and now with the curtains drawn the stage is set for the 2021 Six Nations. While this edition is fraught with challenges it still retains the ability to enthral and inspire audiences, especially those in lockdown.