July 10, 2020 / 3:56 PM / a month ago

Compressed finale to Premiership season to start in August

LONDON (Reuters) - English rugby’s Premiership will resume on Aug. 14 and the remaining nine rounds of matches will be crammed into six weeks, before the playoffs and final on Oct 24 - less than a month before the next season kicks off at the end of November.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant no club rugby in England since March 8 and, because of the amount of close contact involved, it is one of the last major sports to return.

The season will restart with Harlequins v Sale on the evening of Aug.14, with three rounds of midweek fixtures added. All games will be played without fans present and under strict hygiene protocols.

“It was absolutely critical for us, in terms of sporting integrity, that we did everything we could to play the full season without cancelling rounds or awarding points, but it does mean we have to play a small number of midweek games,” Premiership CEO Darren Childs told a teleconference on Friday.

Last year the Premiership refused to countenance a single round of midweek fixtures to give the British and Irish Lions an extra week of preparation for their tour of South Africa, but now seem to have found a way to deal with their player welfare concerns.

“The clubs have been very positive and there have been a lot of conversations about how will deal with the demands,” Childs said.

There are no hard and fast rules in place in terms of number of games or playing minutes allowed, but officials said they were confident that ongoing dialogue would ensure player welfare was not compromised.

“It’s a proactive discussion but we recognise that we need to come up a solution that involves both the (players’ union) RPA and RFU,” said Premiership rugby director Phil Winstanly.

How the new fixtures and dates for next season will impact on the international game remains to be seen. The world’s leading unions are still trying to thrash out a new, unified calendar, with a preferred international window in October and November.

Even without such a fundamental change, there are four postponed Six Nations matches to be squeezed in - including England’s trip to Italy - with four more Twickenham internationals scheduled for November and the knockout stages of the club European Cup still to be played.

The 2020-21 season will finish on June 26, five days before the Lions are scheduled to play their first tour game in Cape Town.

Premiership officials said they have still to work out exactly how to deal with the fallout of any further cases of the new coronavirus once the matches are underway, after this week’s announcement that 10 players and staff had tested positive.

Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge

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