Rugby clubs are in "survival mode" claims City of Derry coach after getting green light to play again

City of Derry Director of Rugby, Paul O’Kane, has warned clubs are facing a battle for survival as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt throughout rugby and the entire sporting community.
City of Derry Director of Rugby, Paul O'Kane.City of Derry Director of Rugby, Paul O'Kane.
City of Derry Director of Rugby, Paul O'Kane.

This week the IRFU announced a cessation of all games below the senior level, meaning the only club fixtures permitted will be in the men and women’s Energia Community Series. The new guidelines were sent to clubs following medical, public health and government advice both from the governments, north and south, and will be in place on both sides of the border until October 27th when a further review takes place.

Clubs are permitted to continue training but City of Derry have yet to fulfil a fixture in Ulster Conference 2 after a positive case in Omagh saw the cancellation of their opening Energia Community Series fixture while a positive case coupled with the introduction of lockdown measures in Donegal, where 19 City of Derry senior players are based, meant the club was unable to fulfil last week’s fixture against Dungannon at Stevenson Park.

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It meant Saturday was to be Derry’s first home competitive game of the season against Belfast Harlequins. However, with the club only receiving official confirmation that their Donegal contingent are cleared to travel yesterday (Thursday), that match is unlikely to take place but it does mean next weekend’s home encounter against Bangor is now a realistic target.

“We had a couple of friendlies before we had to lockdown and we were going well. Then Omagh had a positive case and we had one the week after, so we had to shut down. By that stage they had locked down Donegal and we have 19 players between the Firsts and Seconds based in Donegal.

“It has been frustrating but it was necessary and we have now received clearance from the IRFU which means we can get our Donegal based players back into full contact training. The clearance probably comes too late for us to be able to play Harlequins this weekend but we can now get everyone in, up the contact, and assess it next week for the Bangor game.”

The local club has been proactive in the fight to stop the spread of the virus, implementing strict control measures and advising players and coaches based in Donegal not to travel until they had the necessary clarification but, like so many rugby clubs throughout Ireland, they have struggled financially in these unprecedented times.

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“If you strip everything back, you are talking about the survival of clubs,” added O’Kane, “I would say that’s the main issue everyone is facing. We have lost our main sponsor and there have been others who have had to stop because of the economic climate we are in as no one quite knows what way this will go.

“There is no income from bar and fundraising opportunities are dead in the water given the COVID restrictions. There is not much help coming but everyone is in the same boat. Every club’s budget is under severe pressure and I think, for most clubs, this has turned into a battle for survival.

“We had been stood down since last Thursday but thankfully we now have clarification from Ulster and the IRFU and can get back to working towards a return to playing matches.”

Derry had been training in a strict pod system according to the guidelines with the firsts and seconds working as one group and the Thirds and U18s working separately and there was plenty of reason for optimism as new signings like Jack McIntosh and Richard McGregor knitted in well with what is a young squad but one full of potential. Indeed O’Kane is hoping they will be in a position to finally show what they can do in the not too distant future.

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“You can’t go from ‘A’ to ‘C’ without going through ‘B’. We have to get the players back in match shape now, get the bodies and minds tuned back into the physicality again before we play.

“Our pre-season had gone well and we were playing some nice rugby before we had to stop. The new lads had fitted in well and there was a nice vibe about the place.

“The season we thought suited us because we could blood young players and give some of the lads just in from junior rugby the chance to get used to it. Eoin McDonald who came in from Randalstown is a good hooker and will be a great addition while Richard McGregor who signed from Lisburn is another who should strengthen us.

“We have Cody Laverty and some of the Under 18 squad stepping up while Jack Mcintosh, who we brought in from Rainey, is a real clinker of a player and we are delighted to have him.

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There was some more positive news for City of Derry though after it was revealed this week that the club had secured funding for two new coaching officers to work within schools and the local community.

“Yes, that was a real positive for us,” added O’Kane, “We have secured funding for a development programme which has to be delivered over the next few months. That will prove challenging in itself but it gives us two full-time officers for about six months to go into schools and community groups.”