Rugby officials fear that Six Nations could be scrapped

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The Independent Online

Rugby officials and players fear the Six Nations championship could be abandoned altogether because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak sweeping across England and Wales.

Rugby officials and players fear the Six Nations championship could be abandoned altogether because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak sweeping across England and Wales.

Saturday's Wales-Ireland game in Cardiff was called off on Tuesday because of fears that Irish fans traveling to and from the game could pick up the disease on their footwear and bring it home.

Although foot-and-mouth disease very rarely harms humans, it affects livestock and spreads rapidly, often on the hooves of horses or the shoes of people who come into contact with it.

At least 24 separate cases of the disease were reported across England and Wales by Wednesday afternoon.

Horse racing in Britain has been suspended for at least a week and an auto rally in Wales has been postponed.

Although soccer initially seems to have avoided any problems, rugby and horse racing officials are bracing themselves for more bad news.

England's Six Nations game in Dublin on March 24 is under threat because the Irish fear that thousands of English fans traveling to Lansdowne Road could carry the disease.

"There must be a doubt," said Six Nations chief executive Roger Pickering. "We need to see how the outbreak is contained over the next few days. It's three weeks away but we're certainly looking at contingency plans in case the game does not go ahead.

"If there are more outbreaks it looks bleak."

Representatives of the Six Nations will hold an emergency meeting by telephone on Friday to discuss the crisis.

"With the situation such as it is today, there is a risk of postponing the matches scheduled for March and April until May," French Rugby Federation president Bernard Lapasset said Wednesday.

Another game in doubt would be France vs. Wales in Paris March 17.

The problem with postponing the games is that there is very little space in the calendar to fit them in.

Irish flank forward Kieron Dawson, whose team is headed for a Grand Slam confrontation with England, fears that the entire competition could be scrapped.

"All the players are absolutely gutted that the match against Wales has been canceled," he said. "Everything in Ireland is geared towards the next Six Nations match and we are exceptionally disappointed the game will not take place.

"We understand that the farming industry is very important to the Irish economy and that no risk can be taken with people's livelihoods," Dawson said.

"It would be typical Irish luck if the entire championship was called off as we felt we had a realistic chance of beating England."

With horse racing on hold and 24 meets canceled, British bookmakers are taking bets on meets in Italy and South Africa, which are being screened in betting shops through the SIS betting broadcasting network.

"Clearly seven days without UK racing will have an impact on betting turnover levels," said Coral spokesman Simon Clare.

"However, we have been in discussions with SIS who have already drawn up a contingency plan to provide a wide range of alternative betting opportunities for our customers to bet on, including foreign horse racing."

Bookmakers are expected to lose up to £1.5 million during the suspension, while each meet lost will cost racing £50,000 in lost revenue through betting tax. Racecourses will lose up to £300,000 in ticket sales and TV revenue.

The eight-day suspension, which ends next Wednesday, comes a week before the prestigious Cheltenham Festival, which includes the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup. Any extension could force officials to postpone the meet or cancel it altogether.

Officials at Cheltenham have been trying to minimize the risk by disinfecting stables and horseboxes.

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