Organisers of the Six Nations are facing into a real conundrum exactly one month out from the tournament kicking off in Dublin.
The Omicron surge continues to be felt across the world. Current covid restrictions in Ireland, France, Scotland and Wales mean that capacity crowds at the 2022 Six Nations are unlikely anywhere outside of Twickenham.
For financial and emotional reasons, there appears to be a reluctance to run the tournament along the lines of the 2021 iteration, without supporters.
Dan Biggar summed up the mood of many players last week when he said “it would be a huge, huge step backwards if there are no crowds moving forwards for clubs and the Six Nations.”
Sport in empty stadia is soul-sapping, both for players and spectators. Think back to fixtures like the England v Ireland game in November 2020, in the cavernous and deathly silent Twickenham.
There is a growing momentum for Wales and Scotland to move their three home fixtures across the border to England, where a covid pass is all that is required to enter a stadium
Today's Mail reports that the WRU "are exploring contingency plans" and could look to play their Six Nations fixtures at Tottenham Hotspur stadium to avoid hosting matches in a mostly-empty Principality stadium.
Ian McGeechan suggested Scotland consider similar in today's Telegraph:
The possibility of moving matches to English venues is certainly intriguing. For Scotland, where the maximum capacity at outdoor games is 500, and Wales, where no fans are allowed at all, the possibility of playing at St James’ Park or the Ricoh Arena would surely be preferable. And there are currently no legal restrictions preventing fans from crossing the border.
Speaking at a press conference today, Exeter head of rugby Rob Baxter went one step further and suggested England host the entire tournament.
"If the next best scenario is playing it in one country, where you can have sellout crowds, you can raise some revenue and you can keep that income stream going for all the bodies, then it’s got to be better than cancelling it."
Given the pivotal role the Six Nations plays in the IRFU's annual budget, one wonders if the blazers at IRFU HQ are wondering about the financial gains of Ireland's games against Wales, Scotland and Italy being staged in London, should current restrictions continue into February.
The IRFU said it lost €16m last year because Six Nations fixtures against France and England were staged without supporters.
As it stands, 5,000 supporters would be allowed into the Aviva for the Wales match on 5 February. It's been reported that Ireland will revisit its covid restrictions at the end of the month, but there's scant reason to be optimistic of radical change.
"I think there are a number of weeks in this yet," Taoiseach Michéal Martin said today at a press briefing.
Parking the massive logistical issues around re-organising the tournament to take place entirely in England in just four weeks time, and the fear that England too could bring in tighter restrictions about crowd attendance, there is something novel about an England-hosted Six Nations. It would be as close as we'd get to a Euros of rugby. And while the cynic in us notes that a Six Nations staged entirely in England would ultimately benefit England, we'll take capacity stadiums over mostly-empty arenas every day of the week.