England await news on Italy trip as coronavirus threatens Six Nations

Gerard Meagher
Photograph: Donall Farmer/PA

The Six Nations has been plunged into chaos after Ireland’s match against Italy was called off by the Irish government because of fears over the spread of the coronavirus. There are also escalating doubts over England’s trip to Italy amid concerns the tournament may not be completed for the first time in almost 50 years.

The Rugby Football Union is in talks with the government over England’s match in Rome on 14 March – as well as the Six Nations organisers and the authorities in Italy, where the death toll from the coronavirus has reached double figures. With five Serie A football matches taking place behind closed doors this weekend there remains the possibility England’s match in Rome will be played in an empty stadium.

Related: Ireland v Italy in Six Nations postponed and may be cancelled due to coronavirus

The Italian federation has said its government will decide whether the England match on the final weekend of the tournament goes ahead. The Six Nations organisers said on Wednesday that all matches other than Ireland v Italy are scheduled to go ahead but will continue to monitor the situation “very closely”.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, told the House of Commons he would be discussing the problem with the department for digital, culture, media and sport. Around 20,000 England supporters are expected to attend the match in Rome.

England’s women’s and under-20s teams are also due to play Italy on the same weekend in the northern part of the country where 11 towns have been placed in lockdown.

On Wednesday the Irish Rugby Football Union chief executive, Philip Browne, confirmed Ireland’s match against Italy on 7 March in Dublin had been postponed after an emergency meeting with Ireland’s minister for health, Simon Harris.

The IRFU is in discussions with the Six Nations organisers over rescheduling the game, as well as the women’s and under-20s fixtures on the same weekend, but doubts have been raised over whether it will take place at all.

“We will immediately begin to work with our Six Nations partners to look at the possibility of rescheduling those matches,” Browne said. “I would hope to have an update in the coming days.” Asked if they would be rescheduled rather than cancelled, he said: “That’s the aim if we can do it.”

Chief executive of the IRFU Philip Browne (right) explains to the media that the Six Nations game with Italy on 7 March has been postponed. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

The IRFU has said it will provide ticket holders with new tickets for the rescheduled matches or with a refund if they are not able to attend. Rescheduling the men’s fixture is likely to prove difficult because there appears to be no room in the rugby calendar this season and no sign of the coronavirus relenting any time soon. In 2001 the outbreak of foot and mouth disease caused similar chaos with one match postponed until September and two taking place in October. The last time the tournament was not completed was 1972 because of the Troubles in Ireland.

If England’s match against Italy is called off and rescheduled outside an international Test window it is understood there is a provision within the Professional Game Agreement between the RFU and Premiership Rugby that ensures Eddie Jones has access to players. No such agreement exists with Italy.

All countries will be keen to have their games played with world ranking points all the more important this year because the 2023 World Cup draw takes place after the November internationals.

When three games were cancelled during the World Cup last year because of Typhoon Hagibis, World Rugby awarded a 0-0 draw. Should that be the case for Ireland v Italy, Ireland would lose a full ranking point.