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Ian Humphreys' fear for rugby players if lockdown goes the distance


Major concerns: former Ulster star Ian Humphreys

Major concerns: former Ulster star Ian Humphreys

Major concerns: former Ulster star Ian Humphreys

Former Ulster ace Ian Humphreys believes rugby's full re-emergence in Step Five of the Executive's roadmap to recovery could be far enough away that players' mental health will need to be tackled.

While agreeing that beating the coronavirus has to be the clear priority, he also has concerns not only for the financial hit the professional game is taking but also when it will be deemed safe to play again.

"I miss live sport, but you don't want to do something stupid with this virus," said Humphreys.

"It's obviously much bigger than the financial situation which is serious enough. But mental health is a huge thing, especially for young guys living on their own. It's been a huge cultural shift for players used to being in the team environment.

"It's easy to sit here at home where we are isolated and most of us are feeling fit and healthy and say, 'Ah sure it'll be alright, those boys just want to get out and play'.

"But when you speak to players, especially ones who have kids or have elderly parents, or whose parents are sick, they don't want to put themselves in harm's way.

"Mentally it's tough for the players but it's the same for everyone," added the 38-year-old who retired in 2016.

"Health has to always be the overriding factor."

Humphreys added: “I know Step Two (of the NI Executive’s plan) allows non-contact training and that will make a real difference if the players can at least go back in small groups to the Kingspan.”

Having some form of time-frame to work towards would have been a help for Ulster’s furloughed squad, though Humphreys fully understands the difficulties involved in laying out any specifics for the future.

“There would be some sense in just giving out a time because if it was a case of, ‘Fellas, we’ll not see you for six months’ they’d then go and take a well-earned break and recover mentally and even physically.

“At the moment they’re having to train in case it starts sooner than the autumn,” continued Humphreys, who is now a players’ agent.

With close contact sport only permitted in the final phase of easing lockdown, the return to playing again looks to be quite some distance away.

And should the Republic of Ireland reach their final phase before it is achieved on this side of the border then the professional game will be operating before Ulster can be seen at the Kingspan which, in turn, has already prompted notions that Dan McFarland and his squad might relocate to at least play the other provinces.

Throw in the likelihood of Ulster playing behind closed doors, or certainly with some form of restricted crowd access, and the future for rugby’s revenue-hungry professional game hardly looks ideal — and all that’s before taking into account how players feel about re-engaging with one another on the pitch.

This general environment has led to speculative surges over whether the PRO14 and Champions Cup might be completed and if the Six Nations will also be finished, while there has even been talk of rugby initially coming back as a re-fashioned game without scrums.

As for the idea that rugby could return in some guise without full contact, Humphreys isn’t a huge advocate of that notion.

“Even if it’s behind closed doors I’d rather not see a situation where rugby is refined to no scrums or differences in the breakdown,” said the former Leicester Tigers player.

“You, ideally, want to get back as soon as you can but maybe not to the stage where it detracts from what the real sport is.”

And what of Ulster shifting south if they come out of lockdown first or simply finding their way back by playing the other Irish provinces whether the games be cross-border or just in the Republic?

As Humphreys pointed out: “Why shouldn’t (Ulster) go on a mini-tour of the Irish provinces and why not possibly stay near the Aviva and play and train there?

“I’m sure there would be a way of just doing inter-pros for a few weeks just as a means of getting back.

“Okay, maybe you have some players who don’t want to be away from their wife and family (in relation to relocating south should that be the case) but I reckon that you’d have enough over the four provinces who would just be keen to play rugby again.”

Only time will tell how all this pans out.

Belfast Telegraph