WRU chief Martyn Phillips faces up to an uncertain world – BBC South East Wales

WRU chief Martyn Phillips (R) appointed Wayne Pivac to replace Warren Gatland as Wales coach in 2019

Uncertainty reigns throughout the sporting world and in Welsh rugby, Martyn Phillips is at the sharp end of talks that harbour hope of a return to some sort of normality.

But the Welsh Rugby Union’s chief executive is able to shed light only on the possibilities that could lie ahead, not the certainties.

He is not alone in remaining unsure how the 2020 calendar will look when the crisis brought on by Covid-19 lifts.

Wales’ summer tour of New Zealand and Japan is expected to be postponed and an extra Six Nations-style competition in the autumn has been discussed.

Expectations and proposals yes, but no permanent solutions are in place. Given the climate of uncertainty, how can there be?

Phillips and other rugby bosses are trying to protect the sport and ensure its sustainable survival during a pandemic.

“We are no clearer than we were a month ago, but we are okay with that,” said Phillips.

“Nobody can say they have seen anything like this before. When your revenues disappear overnight and you don’t have a lot of visibility over when they are going to come back.”

Rugby return dates are being discussed in different guises.

Phillips added: “There are around four scenarios being considered. They range from no rugby at all to not playing in front of crowds. Also playing in front of small crowds or back to playing in front of capacity crowds.

“We would like to get back playing as soon as we can, but that’s not going to be anytime soon. Anything can happen and we need to be ready.”

The short-term picture remains uncertain as an alternative 2020 domestic and international programme is sought.

If Wales’ summer tour in June and July is postponed, a possible delayed date in October has been mooted to travel to face the All Blacks.

An extra Six Nations?

Phillips admitted another Six Nations-style tournament being held in the autumn is also being considered.

This is despite the yet to be completed 2020 tournament which has four matches remaining, including the Wales v Scotland contest in Cardiff, called off just over a week before the country was put into lockdown.

“There are probably seven or eight different options based on what crowd and travel restrictions are in place,” said Phillips.

“With regards to the summer tour, we have said to New Zealand those are their games to call off in partnership with their government.

“Until they tell us it is off, we have to assume we carry on, but as every day goes by the less likely that looks.

“We are then into a scenario about going down south in October and the southern hemisphere coming up in November, maybe, but that also looks a little unlikely.

“The second option is you have a home and away Six Nations type thing, but you have to see how that works, because it is quite close to February and March (when the tournament is traditionally held) the following year.

“We still have the Scotland game to play so we could be playing them three times in a short space of time. Equally if we end up playing New Zealand in October, we would be playing them three times in five or six weeks.

“The preference is we get back to normality quickly but that’s overly optimistic and it’s possible the contingencies won’t happen either. We will have to deal with that when we get to it.”

Wales finished in fourth place at the 2019 Rugby World Cup after defeat by New Zealand

Uncertainty over summer Test fixtures leaves a potential gap for domestic competitions to play in July and August, with the Pro14 suspended indefinitely with no indications of a return date.

Phillips also wants to keep the status quo of the four regions, with Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets and Dragons using the UK Government furlough scheme to help pay their players.

“The goal is to try and come out of the other side with all the people we went into it with,” said Phillips.

“It is always challenging for the regions and they are tough models to run.

“The unions are being challenged financially across the world. The regions have been able to run on a lean model so they are adept at making it work and are good at managing on limited resources.

“We have tried to put as much money in as we can. The focus of the Professional Rugby Board (PRB) is to make sure we all come out the other side.”

Phillips admits the international game provides the bulk of the sport’s revenue.

“Nobody would design a season like this,” said Phillips.

“I am conscious people say it’s all about the money and it is. We have a lot of people (in Welsh rugby) in financial difficulty and international rugby is the main money driver.

“If it means making sure as many of us come out of the other side as we can, you find yourself prioritising international rugby over most other things.”

Closed door concerns

The prospect of playing regional and international games behind closed doors also looms. The Irish government says mass gatherings – including at sporting events – will not take place in the Republic of Ireland until after August.

No such measures have yet to be introduced in Wales, but Phillips has concerns over the closed doors prospect for internationals and admitted matches could be moved from the Principality Stadium, which is currently being used as a field hospital.

Principality Stadium to be hospital for as long as needed – Martyn Phillips

“If there are 70,000 people with an average ticket price of £60 it is about £4m, so if you end up not having your four autumn internationals that becomes a big number quickly,” said Phillips.

“Financially it is painful not to have a crowd and the atmosphere suffers. If you have less than 50,000 people it can feel a little bit hollow playing in front of nobody, so do you play the games somewhere else where there is also nobody watching?

“They are pretty unpalatable choices and we are aware of how that might look.

“Do you cancel the games or are they cancelled for you? It is possible large gatherings won’t be allowed until there is a vaccine found so that would not be a decision we could even make.”

Sacrifices have already been made, with Phillips taking a 25% pay cut alongside the WRU executive, Wales head coach Wayne Pivac and Welsh players earning more than £25,000.

Phillips has outlined what the scenario of no further rugby in 2020 would look like.

“If you go from April to December with no income it is impossible to carry on as you are so you have to adapt very differently,” said Phillips.

“It becomes extraordinarily difficult and you are in the realms of scaling right back to as low costs as you can just to make sure you are there when we get back to whatever that ‘new normal’ looks like.

“We are not alone and every sport in every nation has the same issue. We are all going to need to find a way through should that happen.”

The WRU could dip into World Rugby’s £80m emergency fund for struggling unions.

“We will possibly look at that,” said Phillips.

“It’s access to loans and advances on money we were due anyway. Advances could be helpful from a cash-flow point of view, but loans will have to be paid back.

“If the autumn does not go ahead cash will be very tight. Being able to access that cash at that point would be useful.”

So not much good news then but Phillips, who has delayed his departure from his role because of the coronavirus crisis, remains positive about rugby’s long-term future.

“This is also an opportunity to address the global calendar issue which has arisen since the game went professional,” he added.

“And if there is one thing to come out of this, it has had a galvanising effect on rugby which has been riddled by self-interest and held it back.

“The vast majority have put that to one side and those new-found relationships and trust will serve well in the new world.

“Out of a crisis, it can liberate the game.”

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