English rugby league has been suspended until April 3 in the wake of news that a fifth member of the Toronto Wolfpack is in self-isolation after showing possible symptoms of COVID-19.
The Wolfpack looked to turn the hiatus into a positive, scheduling marquee signing Sonny Bill Williams for surgery Tuesday to clean out a knee. The former All Black, who missed Toronto's last game with what was termed a swollen knee, is expected to be out three weeks — which takes him just past the April 3 date.
Veteran Toronto forward Jon Wilkin could also undergo knee surgery during the break.
The decision to suspend play was made at a meeting of club officials, Rugby Football League and Super League in Huddersfield, England, following the latest British government advice regarding social contact and mass gatherings.
It covers the top-tier Betfred Super League where Toronto plays as well as the second-tier Championship, third-tier League 1, Betfred Women’s Super League and the community game.
Rugby union — the 15-man version of the game as opposed to 13-man rugby league —also called a halt to play with the Gallagher Premiership suspending play for five weeks. The Premiership had the weekend off to make room for the subsequently postponed final round of Six Nations.
Rugby league was one of the few sports still active on the weekend in England, although the Wolfpack had the weekend off.
"These are unprecedented times, and they present significant financial and commercial implications for rugby league, which will be further considered during the period of suspension," said a joint statement from Super League executive chairman Robert Elstone and RFL CEO Ralph Rimmer.
"Super League is also an international competition, and consideration has to be given to our clubs in Canada and France, particularly around travel restrictions and scheduling fixtures. "Player welfare and maintaining the integrity of the competition are key concerns moving forward. Equally our responsibilities to Rugby League communities remain front of mind for all of us.
"The whole country is facing major challenges — and the support of our fans, partners and stakeholders is needed now more than ever before."
The decision to suspend play will be re-examined April 3.
Earlier Monday, St. Helens chairman Eamonn McManus told the BBC the future of rugby league is at stake, unless the sport receives government assistance to help it through the virus outbreak.
"There's huge financial implications, the very existence of our sport is on the line," he said.
On Sunday, the Wolfpack said four of its players had gone into self-isolation after experiencing mild possible COVID-19 symptoms. That number rose to five Monday, prompting Wolfpack coach Brian McDermott to stand the whole team down Monday as a precaution.
McDermott said all five were showing "mild" symptoms
Toronto, which had the weekend off after a midweek Challenge Cup win, was slated to play Sunday at Wakefield Trinity. The team has a day off Tuesday and was slated to return to training Wednesday.
The Wolfpack, who have lost their first six matches in their debut Super League season, are currently based in England, with their Toronto home opener April 18.
Both the March 22 game against Wakefield and March 27 contest at Huddersfield fall in the suspended portion of the schedule. Toronto's next game after that is April 4 or 5 against Newcastle in the Coral Challenge Cup and April 11 in France at the Catalan Dragons in Super League play.
McDermott said the players in question have gone into seven-day isolation. Under the advised British medical protocol, they would get tested for the virus if the symptoms continue after that. The first player to go into self-isolation did so last Thursday.
The Wolfpack started the season with a small 23-man squad due to salary-cap issues. Rugby league teams dress 17 for games, with 13 starters and four on the interchange bench.
Does the team have enough players to field a team at the moment?
"Right now, we wouldn't," said McDermott.
The draw for the sixth round of the Challenge Cup went ahead as scheduled Monday with Toronto drawn against the third-tier Newcastle Thunder in the round-of-16 of the knockout competition. The matches are scheduled for April 4-5.
Should the match go ahead as planned, it will be a reunion of sorts given Newcastle head coach Simon Finnigan used to be a Wolfpack assistant coach and Thunder players Bob Beswick and Quentin Laulu-Togaga'e used to wear Toronto colours.
The Wolfpack reached the fifth round of the Challenge Cup in their inaugural 2017 season, beating Siddal ARLFC and London Broncos before falling to the Salford Red Devils 29-22.
They went one better in 2018, dispatching Kells ARLFC and the Barrow Raiders to reach the sixth round, where they were thumped 66-10 by the Warrington Wolves in a franchise-worst loss.
Toronto did not take part in the 2019 knockout competition.
The transatlantic rugby league team, which is currently based in England, played the Leeds Rhinos on March 5. Leeds subsequently advised that one of its players had self-isolated after showing "symptoms of possible coronavirus." That player eventually tested negative for the virus.
The Rhinos opted to not to travel to France to play its scheduled game Saturday against Catalan. The game had been scheduled to be played behind closed doors at Stade Gilbert Brutus in Perpignan following a local ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 spectators.
Catalans captain Remi Casty told the Perpignan-based L'Independant newspaper he plans to self-isolate and will not attend training sessions. He said while healthy, he did not want to catch the virus and pass it on to someone "more fragile."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2020.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press