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Rugby clubs braced for tough times amidst coronavirus pandemic

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Aaron Cairns on the charge against Dublin University last month.

Aaron Cairns on the charge against Dublin University last month.

©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Aaron Cairns on the charge against Dublin University last month.

Yesterday would have been expected to be a bumper day around the All Ireland League.

With the Six Nations over and Ulster due to have played the night before, those looking for their rugby fix of a Saturday would have been throwing over a fiver at gates far and wide and putting much more again behind the bar.

Instead, clubs all over the province of Ulster were facing up to the reality that their seasons were over, the 2019/20 campaign having essentially been declared null and void on Thursday evening.

An uncertain period for everyone, our clubs are far from immune.

"It's a worrisome time," admits Banbridge chairman Robert Ervine, whose club would have been due to host Malone yesterday at Rifle Park in what would have been a high profile Ulster derby with play-off implications.

"We've had a lot of meetings, not like we usually would have but over the phone, to try and sort it all out because we're going to be badly affected, as will all clubs.

"There are still bills to pay and what have you and now it's with no income coming in. We've a couple of big fundraisers organised that now can't happen.

"We had Rory Best's homecoming weekend that we'd have been getting something from ourselves and that was to help fund a project we're looking to do that would have been a big extension to the club.

"There's other events over the summer. We hold a fundraiser every year that we call 'Friends of Banbridge' but that won't happen now.

"We rely on those events big time. You're talking £10K plus and you can't get that sort of money elsewhere overnight as it were.

"That's all on top of gate receipts, your pre-match lunches and things, that's all disappeared. There's still maintenance fees and grounds to be looked after and you can't let them go otherwise you'll never catch up. There's money to be spent and none coming in which is obviously very worrying.

"We're doing all we can to mitigate the cost but, like all clubs, we're going to need some help whether that's with rates or electric or what have you. We're just trying to cut costs.

"But everyone is in the same boat and there's a lot worse off than us but it's all going to take its toll and we're going to have to work really hard whenever we do get back on an even keel, whenever that is."

In a purely competitive sense, the halting of promising promotion pushes is galling too. Queen's, for example, have been in Division 2A since the All-Ireland League was restructured in 2011 but having taken 28 points from their last 30 available were sat in second with a favourable remaining fixture list before the cancellations.

"All we can do now is build on what we did (next season)," says President Ian McAvoy. "Queen's is in a position where we are on the cusp of something special, so if we can keep momentum, the players, the front and backroom staff going our goal from August 2020 to 2021 is to progress as a club and to get to the play-offs or win the division and get into 1B and be a premier club."

Below the All-Ireland ranks, it has been a bitter pill to swallow for junior clubs too, none more so than at Ballyclare.

The County Antrim club sit top of the Championship and were on course to feature in the now cancelled round-robin in a bid for promotion to AIL 2C.

In what could have proven to be a most memorable season, they were also set for an Easter Monday visit to Kingspan Stadium to compete in their third straight Towns Cup final.

"We had a hell of a season at Ballyclare but for now sport has to take a rather large back seat and we have to do the best we can to assist where we can for general life in the community and our small areas," says the club's head coach Mike McKeever.

"A Saturday afternoon now looks a bit different with no rugby or football results coming through or something to watch but sport now becomes a very small tiny thing in life whenever we can see the dangers and risk that are going on around us.

"Sport offers us so much in life, participation, competition, the social element, the mental health benefits and friendships but now we have to listen to the professionals, take on their advice and adhere to it."

While the games have been put on ice, however, clubs throughout Ulster are continuing their efforts to be of value to the local community.

Banbridge and plenty of other clubs all round the province have offered their services to the community, whether that be collecting shopping and prescriptions, or indeed any other service that may be required by those in isolation.

"A rugby club is all age ranges, we're six to 76," adds Ervine. "It's a lifetime sport, you'll always hang about, so we have members of all ages some of whom are more vulnerable than others and we're looking to as a club do everything we can to help them.

"But it's a community thing more than a rugby thing really, we're trying to help whoever we can, not just our clubmen and women but our community and our neighbours.

"People will be feeling isolated or lonely but there's always help there if people reach out."   

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