Competitive rugby will return this year despite the coronavirus pandemic, the chief medical officer of World Rugby has predicted.
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Eanna Falvey said domestic, provincial or club games would likely return first, progressing to Tests, with Australia and New Zealand best-placed to get the ball rolling.
Global rugby is suspended due to the pandemic, but Falvey said he could see light at the end of the tunnel.
"I would be very surprised if there isn't some competitive rugby before the end of the year," he told the Irish Times.
"I wouldn't be surprised if there is quite a bit of competitive rugby and I would say that we are probably going to get cleverer in how we can monitor players."
The Irishman said Australia and New Zealand, much less hard-hit than Europe by Covid-19, were probably "reasonably close" to getting back into training.
On Thursday it was confirmed that New Zealand intend holding their own version of "Super Rugby", with their five existing teams playing home-and-away matches (20 in total) over a 10-week period once the country moves to Level 2 of lockdown which is expected to be announced next Monday.
Players would then require between 3-4 weeks in order to get match-fit, so an early June start to the mini-tournament seems entirely possible.
However, the South African scenario for joining their New Zealand rivals in action isn't nearly as clear, with domestic travel only permitted on Level 2 and sporting activities currently set for Level 1 as per the gazetted regulations.
With South Africa having only started with Level 4 on 1 May and no indication whatsoever as to when that might end, South African players and fans may well be forced to watch the rest of the world in action on TV for the foreseeable future.
Falvey set out a scenario for the return of international rugby, though he admitted a second or third wave of the virus would change the outlook.
"For example, you would have inter-provincial games in Ireland," he said.
"The next step would be to have short-hop transfers between countries that are in similar stages in their disease process.
"You could have matches between Irish and Welsh, Irish and Scottish, Irish and English teams, depending on what that would look like.
"That may well then show people that it is less risky than we thought and, in the absence of an outbreak, it may facilitate further travel and proper international rugby."
He said crowds could attend matches even before a vaccine was approved.
"Once we have games played, we will have crowds," he said.
"The size of the crowd won't be determined by World Rugby or by the individual union. It will be determined by the government, and the limitation on public gatherings will decide the size of crowds at games."
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