Ireland’s match against Italy in the Six Nations Championship next weekend has been postponed, the Irish Rugby Football Union has confirmed.
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne said that, following a meeting with Health Minister Simon Harris, he is “happy to comply” with official advice.
The decision comes after health experts recommended cancelling the game in Dublin due to the risk posed by coronavirus.
Ireland were also due to play Italy in an under-20 Six Nations game and women’s international that weekend.
Speaking after a meeting at the Department of Health on Wednesday, Mr Browne said: “We had a very positive meeting with Minister Harris and his advisers where we requested an instruction as to the staging of the rugby international matches over the next weekend.
Philip Browne has confirmed that the Ireland V Italy game next Saturday has been cancelled. pic.twitter.com/k8HgI9bd5U
— Cate McCurry (@CateMcCurry) February 26, 2020
“At the meeting we were informed that the National Public Health and Emergency Team has determined that the series of matches should not proceed in the interest of public health.
“The IRFU is perfectly happy to comply with this instruction.
“We will immediately begin to work with our Six Nations partners at the possibility of rescheduling those three matches and I would hope to have an update on that in the coming days.
“We have a lot of work to do with our Six Nations partners and with Italy, who are going to have to make a lot of rearrangements.”
He added: “I wanted to stress from the very outset that we made it very clear to the minister and his advisers that we are fully supportive of whatever steps they feel is necessary to safeguard the public in light of the coronavirus.
“This was about the decisions that they feel need to be take in relation to protecting the public; we are fully supportive of that.”
Ireland’s @SixNationsRugby matches v Italy are off.
We will immediately begin to work with our Six Nations partners to look at the possibility of rescheduling the matches and would hope to have an update on this in the coming days.https://t.co/80ByyvOd3E
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 26, 2020
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Harris said: “It gave me an opportunity to outline, along with the Chief Medical Officer, the determination made by the National Public Emergency Team yesterday.
“A number of decisions were made by our health experts in an effort to contain the spread of Covid-19 and ensure that Ireland plays its role in that regard.
“One of those decisions related to mass gatherings and obviously there was a particular issue in relation to a series of rugby games due to take place on the weekend of the 6th, 7th and 8th of March.
“It was good to have an opportunity to outline the rationale behind that to the IRFU and I very much appreciate the importance that they too attach to public health, and they were understanding in that regard.”
Mr Harris added: “I know this is going to be a source of great disappointment to so many rugby fans right across our own country and indeed beyond in relation to the impact of the Six Nations, but I think it’s the right decision.
“I don’t think any minister would ever regret following the advice of our public health experts and I think it’s what the Irish people would expect.”
Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer said the decision to cancel the matches was “not made lightly”.
Tony Holohan said it was “the only responsible decision that could have been made” because mass gatherings of people create a particular risk.
— MerrionStreet.ie (@merrionstreet) February 26, 2020
Thousands of fans were expected to travel to the game from Italy, where the number of people with the virus continues to climb.
Speaking at a media briefing at the Department of Health, Dr Holohan said: “The risk assessment in relation to the specific mass gathering of the rugby match, we made a clear recommendation in relation to that, and that’s been a matter of public discussion and we will be meeting the IRFU later.
“We also set up a process whereby criteria can be both developed and applied to help in the management of decisions around other mass gatherings that might arise over the coming weeks and months.
“What was of concern to us was the nature of the mass gathering, a large group of people coming together from an affected area where we don’t believe we fully understand the community transmission pattern in that area.
“We think there may be many more cases there that have yet to be identified. We don’t think any other responsible decision could have been made.”
The cancellation of the match is likely to cost millions of euro.
Asked who will pick up the bill, Dr Holohan said: “We are having an engagement with the IRFU after this conference and I don’t want to pre-empt the outcome of that discussion.
“We’ve also made some important changes to the way in which, in particular, people who have had testing, that they would no longer be required to stay in the hospital environment pending the outcome of that testing.
“That would be an important way of helping to reduce some of the pressure in holding those patients in a hospital environment pending the outcome of that test.”
Transport Minister Shane Ross said that while he could not stop rugby fans travelling from Italy to Ireland, he did not want to encourage mass gatherings.
“You certainly don’t want to encourage them to gather in a big arena,” he told RTE.
“But you can’t stop them coming – that would be absolutely wrong.
“We are keeping the border open, we are not going that far. But we are certainly not going to encourage measures which are going to heighten the risk.”
In 2001, a number of Six Nations games were postponed due to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.