"I think there is a threat to professional rugby worldwide" - Richard Cockerill
Edinburgh coach says continuation of no crowds and vanishing revenues due to Covid-19 will mean a bleak future ahead
Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill believes professional rugby around the world is facing an existential threat as uncertainty surrounding the medium to long-term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to provoke deepening concern in the sport along with so many aspects of life.
As he prepares to lead his side into a fourth Guinness Pro14 campaign of his tenure since arriving in Scotland three years ago against Ospreys behind closed doors at BT Murrayfield on Saturday night, the former England hooker and Leicester coach admitted that the question of livelihoods had to be in the minds of all who earn a living from the game.
“I think there is a threat to professional rugby worldwide, never mind in Scotland,” said Cockerill. “It’s a difficult one to answer. Clearly, like us all, you guys [media] report on it. If there’s nothing to report on we’ll just be sat here [on Zoom] having quizzes won’t we?
“We’ve got to have income. If you’re not producing any money then you can’t have a professional game, so it’s obviously a concern at the back of everybody’s mind, players and coaches and the game at large. We’ve just got to keep doing our jobs and putting a good product on the field.”
The loss of the three planned November Tests at BT Murrayfield against Argentina, Japan and New Zealand is estimated to have cost the SRU, who run both Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors, around £12 million in revenue. The 2020 Six Nations, which was cut short by the coronavirus shutdown, is to be concluded before a hastily-arranged Autumn Nations Cup involving Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, France, Italy, Fiji and Georgia.
Hopes that a significant number of fans - the English RFU were talking about getting 30,000 into Twickenham - have dwindled due to the re-imposing of restrictions following a surge in UK cases and a feared second spike of the virus. Scotland’s Six Nations finale against Wales is now scheduled to be played with no fans in Llanelli, which has since been placed under local lockdown.
Cockerill continued: “If we get to the  Six Nations and there are no crowds then it is clearly going to be an issue, and then we have to readjust what we do, and who gets paid what, and who does what. It won’t be unique to me and this team, it will be the same for us all, unfortunately.”
Ulster announced yesterday that they were to trial a “safe return” of 600 fans to their Pro14 opener against Benetton at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast on Friday, following other tentative steps such as 700 attending the Edinburgh v Glasgow game at the end of last month, over 2,500 at Harlequins and the French Top 14 allowing crowds of 5,000. However, the brakes have been put on mass gatherings by UK and devolved governments as a potentially difficult winter looms.
The more short-term realities to be dealt with are a new Pro14 campaign, minus South African involvement for now, and a helter-skelter flurry of initial fixtures which were only revealed by tournament organisers last week.
“It’s going to be interesting. The first time the clubs had sight of that was when it was announced so we were as intrigued as everyone else,” said Cockerill.
“But if Pro14 are telling us that Premier Sports think Monday night is the best TV slot, and that’s the way to create more revenue, well, once you’ve sold your soul, you’ve sold your soul. You get told what to do – it’s no different to any other sport.
“So, it’s eight weeks of Saturday, Saturday, Sunday, Sunday and after that it is Mondays. After that we don’t know who we’re playing, do we? We’ll be positive. I’m not worried about Sundays, Mondays, Saturdays we’ll just have our weekends on Tuesday, why not?”
Focusing on the Saturday’s game, Cockerill said he was expecting an improved Ospreys side from the one which managed only two wins last season.
“They played Scarlets [in a friendly] on Friday but it was pretty much two second teams, really, from what I saw,” said the Edinburgh coach.
“They’re a good side, I know Toby Booth well and he’s a good coach. George North will be missing through suspension but they’ve got four other British and Irish Lions within that squad. They’re a talented team, they just had a disappointing season by their standards.”
Cockerill said his absentees from the European Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat at Bordeaux, wing Duhan van der Merwe, scrum-half Nic Groom and centre Mark Bennett, should all be fit for Saturday, although Scotland scrum-half Henry Pyrgos is still not fully recovered from a concussion problem.
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