Rugby Football League trying to salvage Ashes amid virus pandemic

Darren Lockyer captained Australia on their 2003 Ashes tour

Britain’s governing Rugby Football League (RFL) has yet to give up hope of staging this year’s Ashes series with Australia as it tries to ensure clubs stay afloat during the shutdown caused by the coronavirus.

Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) followed other competitions across all sport on Monday by announcing its suspension of the current season, with chiefs saying the domestic campaign was being put on hold “indefinitely”.

That move has led to a big question mark against the future of the Kangaroos’ tour, scheduled for October and November.

Matches between Great Britain and Australia are the foundation stone of international rugby league, with this year’s series set to mark the first Aussie tour since 2003.

RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer, responding later on Monday to the NRL’s announcement, said cancelling the tour would be a huge blow ahead of the 2021 World Cup in England.

But with the RFL and Super League having shut down their respective competitions, the NRL’s move came as no surprise to Rimmer.

“We were expecting it,” he told Britain’s Press Association news agency.

But Rimmer said if Australia did not tour, playing matches against other international opposition was unlikely to be an alternative option.

“I don’t think that would be feasible because, whatever restrictions apply to the Australians would similarly apply to most of the other teams willing to tour because many of those players would be enshrined within the NRL and UK competitions,” he said.

“At the moment, we’re aiming towards the Ashes. It’s hugely important to us and it’s there as an hors d’oeuvre to the World Cup in 2021.

“But nevertheless there are forces at work that are far greater at this moment in time.”

With all major senior club fixtures postponed by the RFL and the elite Super League, which also encompasses teams in France and Canada, until at least April 3, there are concerns over whether teams can cope with the impact on their finances.

Rimmer warned it was possible some semi-professional clubs could go out of business.

“It’s not impossible,” he said. “We have redressed the position in the operational rules on insolvency laws that would normally apply.

“Hopefully it won’t be, the (UK) Government support will be very helpful in all that,” added Rimmer, citing a move by the British finance minister to guarantee 80 percent of wages of employees unable to work due to the virus.

– ‘Ready for the worst’ –

The 16-club NRL, considered a part of Australia’s social fabric, kicked off a fortnight ago and made it through two rounds as one of the last professional sports worldwide still playing during the pandemic, amid fears a shutdown would bankrupt the game.

But the Australian government then recommended against all “non-essential” domestic travel, with Australia recording more than 1,600 cases of COVID-19 as of Monday.

“Our pandemic and biosecurity experts said due to the outbreak it is no longer safe for our players to play,” Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever come across a financial crisis like it,” he added.

“We’re ready for the worst.”

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