Six Nations chiefs face a major logistical task after next week’s clash between Ireland and Italy was postponed due to the risk posed by the coronavirus outbreak.
The Irish Rugby Football Union announced the decision following a meeting with Irish Health Minister Simon Harris and his advisers on Wednesday.
China has reported 77,658 cases and 2,663 deaths following the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus that has spread to a variety of countries, including Italy, where authorities have swiftly put in restrictions.
In 2001, Ireland’s Six Nations matches against the other home unions – Scotland, Wales and England – were postponed following a foot and mouth outbreak and delayed until September and October that year.
There would appear no obvious date for the postponed March 7 Six Nations encounter in Dublin to be played this season, given a packed post-Six Nations schedule of European and domestic rugby.
In a statement, the Six Nations said: “Six Nations notes the formal instruction provided to the IRFU today by the Irish National Public Health Emergency team, which states that the upcoming series of Championship matches between Ireland and Italy over the weekend of 6/8 March should not proceed.
“We are fully supportive of any preventative measures taken in the interests of overall Public Health in relation to the coronavirus, and we will respect instructions provided by Government authorities and health organisations. Six Nations also continues to liaise with its medical advisory group.
“We will be holding further discussions with all six Unions with respect to the rescheduling options for all the affected games, factoring in the current dynamic situation.
“All other matches are currently scheduled to go ahead as normal. We will continue to monitor the situation very closely with all Unions and the respective Government authorities and health organisations.”
Ireland were also due to host Italy in Six Nations under-20 and women’s internationals between on March 6 and 8, respectively. England are due to face Italy in Rome on March 14, which is this season’s final scheduled Six Nations weekend.
The IRFU said: “The IRFU had a positive meeting with Minister Harris and his advisors today, where we requested a formal instruction as to the staging of the Ireland v Italy international matches over the weekend of 6/8 March.
“At the outset we made it clear that the IRFU was supportive of the Governments’ need to protect public health in relation to the coronavirus.
“We were then advised, formally, that The National Public Health Emergency team has determined that the series of matches should not proceed, in the interests of Public Health. The IRFU is happy to comply with this instruction.
“We will immediately begin to work with our Six Nations partners to look at the possibility of rescheduling the matches and would hope to have an update on this in the coming days.”
France currently lead the competition, and cannot be caught if they win their final two fixtures against Scotland in Edinburgh on Sunday week, then Ireland in Paris six days later.
The Gallagher Premiership and Guinness PRO14 competitions, meanwhile, conclude with finals on June 20 – and both Ireland and Italy then embark on summer tours.
European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup semi-finals weekend on May 2-3 might be the earliest option to reschedule postponed fixtures.
But Leinster and Ulster are currently still in the Champions Cup, which has its quarter-final round in early April. Between them, those teams provided 15 players in Ireland’s match-day 23 that tackled England last weekend.
Meanwhile, the World Short Track Speed Skating Championships – scheduled to take place in Seoul next month – have been cancelled due to the spread of the virus.
And the PA news agency understands the Football Association is holding internal discussions at Wembley to discuss the implications of the virus.
Italian authorities have put restrictions in place in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, with Inter Milan’s Europa League match at home to Ludogorets set to be played behind closed doors on Thursday, on the back of four Serie A matches being postponed last weekend.
Italy are due to play England at Wembley in a friendly on March 27, and the FA is meeting to discuss that match as well as other matters related to the outbreak.
UEFA is working to the existing timetable for Euro 2020, which kicks off on June 12 in Rome, but say the situation will be under constant review.
And cycling’s world governing body the UCI admitted it was impossible to predict whether races in Italy may also need to be cancelled.
Organisers RCS have already said that Milan-San Remo, one of the biggest one-day races on the world calendar, may not go ahead on March 21 as it is due to visit affected areas.
Before then, the one-day Strade Bianche and the week-long Tirreno-Adriatico are due to take place in the country, while the running of the Giro d’Italia in May could be in doubt.