Six Nations: Rescheduling postponed games will be difficult - ex-Ireland fly-half Humphreys

Ireland players congratulate try-scorer Andrew Conway during their 24-12 win over Wales in February
Ireland players congratulate try-scorer Andrew Conway during their 24-14 win over Wales in February

Former Ireland fly-half David Humphreys says it may prove difficult to reschedule the Six Nations games which have been postponed because of fears over the spread of the coronavirus.

Ireland's matches at home to Italy and away to France, plus Italy v England, have been called off in recent weeks.

The 2001 tournament finished in October after a foot-and-mouth outbreak.

"When games were postponed in 2001 it was much easier to rearrange into the season structure," said Humphreys.

"The game has changed dramatically since then - there wasn't 'week in-week out' league rugby in those days," the Gloucester director of rugby told BBC Radio Ulster's Sportsound Extra Time programme.

"This time it's much more difficult, especially in the context of the ongoing debate over player welfare.

"The Six Nations is one of the biggest competitions in world rugby but it's very, very hard to get space to fit more games into the calendar."

Ireland's schedule for the remainder of 2020 includes two Tests in Australia in July, along with autumn internationals against the Australians, South Africa and Japan in Dublin in November.

Humphreys says the potential addition of two rearranged Six Nations games in October or November would create "a huge workload" for the Ireland squad.

"International rugby is unbelievably tough physically and unbelievably tough mentally, so to add more games with those games already planned, it's possible but it's very difficult," he said.

"It's probably easier for Ireland than for other countries if you look at the contracting model where they control international players that are available to Ireland as and when they are needed.

"Fixture lists have been planned for two or three years and there is already a high amount of overlap between club fixtures and international games. That is not what the clubs want and it increases players' workload throughout the season."

Quality of rugby has fallen

Humphreys believes an already packed calendar may be having a negative impact on the calibre of rugby being played in the professional game.

"This year, even at club level, and arguably in the Six Nations, the quality of rugby hasn't been at the level that it has been in the last few years," said the 72-times capped number 10.

"Is that the fallout of World Cup preparation and players going back to play club rugby and not getting a proper rest?

"We've got to manage our best assets as best we can as the top players and their welfare are key to the fortunes of the sport.

"We have to make sure we give them the best opportunity to perform now but also make sure they are performing to a high level in five and 10 years' time."

Ireland came out second best in their Six Nations game with England at Twickenham
Maro Itoje and Ultan Dillane in action as Ireland come out second best in their Six Nations game with England at Twickenham

'Change won't happen overnight'

Under new head coach Andy Farrell, Ireland began this year's Six Nations series with an unconvincing win over Scotland, followed by a more comprehensive victory over Wales and then a resounding defeat by England.

Humphreys explains it will take time for Farrell to put his stamp on Ireland's style of play as he seeks to build on the achievements of former coach Joe Schmidt.

"To change things, it rarely happens overnight. It's a gradual process of trying to establish some principles which are slightly different to what Ireland have done for the last few seasons," argued the ex-Ulster fly-half.

"The biggest challenge is always to change the mindset of players as to how they play the game.

"We have seen Ireland trying to be more ambitious, to attack a little bit from deeper. They have competed well, they're still a really good team, but the changes Andy is going to try and drive through will take some time."

Sexton needs competition

New Ireland skipper Johnny Sexton has come in for criticism from some quarters for dropping below his customary high standard of performance this season and Humphreys believes it is time there was more competition for the number 10 jersey.

"Johnny is the captain and has been Ireland's standout player over the last number of years. Consequently the pressure and expectation on him to deliver week in, week out, is huge.

"For the Irish management and for Johnny he needs to find someone else who can take him out of the firing line for a week or two and know that the team's performance isn't going to be compromised, their leadership isn't going to be compromised, nor the way they play the game.

"Every team knows that to stop Ireland playing their game you have to stop Johnny Sexton, so he has been on the receiving end of a lot of physical attention over the last few seasons."

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