Can grassroots rugby clubs survive the coronavirus pandemic?

The world has been thrust into chaos with the coronavirus pandemic and sport is not immune.

Leagues around the world have been suspended indefinitely while the future of the Tokyo Olympics remain uncertain, no matter the defiant attitude of the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese Government.

In Australia, the NRL and AFL this week confirmed their competitions would continue and begin, respectively, the two major winter football codes joining the A-League as professional sports effectively rolling the dice amid the greatest challenge the world has faced since World War II.

Rugby Australia had no such choice. Given the international borders at play in Super Rugby, the competition's steward, SANZAAR, was left with no choice but to suspend the tournament once the New Zealand Government enacted strict new border controls which were also later adopted in Australia.

On Monday, however, RA went a step further. In response to the Australian Government's calls for social distancing and a ban on non-essential outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people, chief executive Raelene Castle announced a nation-wide suspension of all rugby activities at the non-professional level until May 2.

For a sport that has experienced a grassroots recovery, of sorts, over the last few years, this may yet prove to be a hammer blow.

But that is certainly not the attitude now.

Given Monday's news, ESPN set out to gauge some of the reaction across the rugby community and discovered that it was largely inspiringly positive. Sure there will be some challenges, each of the three club representatives agreed, but that this is nothing they can't overcome. And as for the leadership of the often-maligned Castle? First rate.

"There's two components to it; there's the rugby side and how that impacts clubs and the game, and there's the humanitarian side and that's more important really," Western Sydney Two Blues General Manager Craig Morgan told ESPN.

"From a rugby perspective, for a club like ours in particular, momentum is very important; after doing a long hard preseason, everyone just wants to play. So keeping them engaged until we recommence and we can get back together face-to-face as a group [is going to be challenging].

"But the humanitarian side is the more important side of it. At the end of the day there is a risk, and it's not just about our own community, it's about the more vulnerable in our community that if we don't follow this edict then we can impact on people and that could be catastrophic."

Across in Sydney's south, Maroubra Missiles President, Jamie Menere, has the added challenge of explaining this unprecedented situation to a group of kids who are desperate to get out and throw the Gilbert around.

A "village" club within the Randwick catchment, the Missiles were at last approaching some playing time after herding their kids into teams. The playing kits, too, had just arrived, making the reality of a proper game all the more real.

"There are quite a lot of people who have put in a lot of hours to get us to the starting line every year, all are volunteer staff as well," Menere, who fought the bushfires along the South Coast over the summer, told ESPN. "So you get the kids to the first training session and there is a lot of excitement; you've got that club spirit starting to build and then it stops.

"I guess one of the hardest bits is not knowing yet what the plan is; if you can categorically say 'right, change of plans, another six weeks, we'll be kicking off with a 10-week comp,' you can start planning around that and keep some excitement there and give the kids something to look forward to. But when it's very much unknown, and that's the way it is, it's hard to give clear messages of what is going to happen next.

"So I imagine there are a lot of, including my son, very disappointed kids; but I guess there's life lessons in there for them as well."

Things are no different in the bush.

Orange Emus Rugby Club is one of the biggest country clubs in NSW and perennial contenders in the Central West Rugby competition.

The club is an essential part of the local community, its role even more vital over the past few years as the region, like all of country NSW and Queensland, battled severe drought.

Outgoing club president, Steve Fergus, has been a busy man since Monday's suspension was handed down. Revealing he had taken more than 50 phonecalls from anxious club stakeholders, Fergus also backed RA's decision but also highlighted the predicament the Emus and so many other clubs across the country would be left in.

"It's definitely the right call, 100 percent the right decision by Rugby Australia," Fergus said. "It gives some certainty around what clubs can and can't do ... but it's got massive issues for us because when you run a rugby club all of your costs are incurred up front.

"So we will have paid $30,000 for playing kit which arrived yesterday, but registrations will stop; people will cease to register their kids; our seniors will stop registering until they know what's happening with the season ahead.

"In the past, you'd get all registrations paid to the club and then the club would pay Rugby Australia and all the affiliation fees out of that. So you had the ability to get all your rego income come in; get all those dollars and then pay Rugby Australia and pay NSW Country from that. Whereas with the new Rugby Xplorer system, Rugby Australia, NSW Rugby and Country rugby clip their ticket on the way through and then we get paid out the balance of that rego payment."

If the Emus are able to resume play on May 2, they won't miss any home games. But if the Australia-wide rugby suspension is extended, the club's bottom line will be in for a significant hit as food and bar takings suffer and the knock-on effects take a far greater hold.

"We've got great sponsors but I would absolutely understand if businesses wanted to sit on their hands at the moment and see what happens as well," Fergus said. "So huge concerns for us around all that.... you lose all your bar takings, your canteen takings.

"If the season's cancelled altogether, we will more than likely shut our clubhouse down, turn the power off to everything, just to reduce our operating costs, which is a huge loss to the community. We run a variety of touch competitions there; we've got people catching up for beers on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays there; it is an important little community service we've got and if we've got to close the doors through this we've got staff who will lose wages.

"There are a lot of flow-on effects if the season is cancelled."

While not as concerned about food and bar takings on Saturday afternoon, nor the Two Blues "great sponsors", Craig Morgan said his club would feel the pinch in other areas.

Having rebranded from Parramatta to Western Sydney for the 2019 season, the Two Blues were effectively reengaging with a community that has often felt forgotten higher up the rugby chain.

Looking to build on last year's concerted progress, Morgan knows he may lose some players as the lack of rugby and even training could see some individuals drift away.

"I think it's still too early for that; I think if things go to plan there is a general manager's meeting next week," Morgan said about a potential resumption date for Sydney's Shute Shield competition, which was on Wednesday rocked by a Sydney University's positive test for the coronavirus. "I know at a higher level there have been discussions; I'm just not sure what the plans are. I think everyone is answerable to someone at the moment; from health authorities down through Sport NSW and down through the various governing bodies of the various sports. So we're all sort of waiting on information to filter down and try and put plans together.

"I know our head coach has been in touch with the majority of our top squad of players; the colts and women's coaches are the same with their squads, too. So it's really a matter of encouraging them to still be active, because when the competition does kick-off there needs to be a base level of health and fitness from an OH&S point-of-view; it's hard to go straight into what is a pretty elite competition with no training."

Most teenagers and adults should clearly have an understanding of the current situation, or at least be open to reason on why they can't even take to the training paddock. Making that case to a seven-year-old kid however won't always prove that easy.

"There [are] two ways to look at that," Maroubra Missiles president Jamie Menere replied when asked how he would explain the situation to his own son. "One is how do I keep him physically active so that he doesn't drive me up the walls with his endless amounts of energy.

"But then secondly, there are probably some life lessons in there for him that there are things that are bigger than sport and there are times when you need to show resilience and just do what's best for the greater good rather than just yourself."

The outbreak of the coronavirus is the latest in a long line of issues rugby has had to confront in Australia.

From the deterioration of Super Rugby and the axing of the Western Force, to the Israel Folau saga and the implosion that was Michael Cheika's final weeks as Wallabies coach - a period that was later revealed to have included a public verbal altercation with chief executive Castle - and now a broadcast negotiation that has been suspended due to the coronavirus, Rugby Australia has been the butt of many sporting jokes.

But asked to rate Castle's handling of the coronavirus crisis and RA's swift reaction to the pandemic sweeping the world, the three club representatives were united in their support of Australian rugby's guiding hand.

"I think she is doing a great job," Two Blues General Manager Craig Morgan said. "Depending on what you read, I actually feel sorry for her; she gets attacked on many levels and some of it's uncalled for, some of it's personal, and that's disappointing. I think sometimes the rugby community can be our own worst enemy in that sort of regard.

"We're not the ones doing the TV deals, the rights and alike, I'm sure they're doing the absolute best they can and I'm sure they know what they're doing."

Menere, who is as well placed to comment on the battle for Australian sport's next generation as anyone, has seen a shift for the better.

"I actually feel things were getting better," he told ESPN. "We're struggling as a game for a multitude of reasons; there's so much competition among other codes and we've gone through a lean period of results so there appears to be less of that pull effect of people watching the Wallabies and Waratahs and coming through.

"At a grassroots level there has been a bit of a rebound ... the coordination between the professional and community side is improving; we're getting a lot more assistance from NSW Rugby Union and RA; but we'll obviously continue to improve on that over time because they're not going to have a professional game without the community side of it.

"But overall, I see enough there to be positive."

Out in Orange, Fergus is adamant the Emus will come through this latest challenge stronger than ever. He also threw his support behind Castle, hailing her leadership in a time when other Australian codes had perhaps not acted with the same level of conviction.

"I actually think Raelene Castle is doing a really, really good job," Fergus said. "We have seen some really strong principled decisions from Raelene since she stepped up as CEO. I think the Israel Folau decision was morally the correct decision to make; it took a lot of fortitude from Raelene Castle to push ahead with it. Whether you agree with Raelene or not, I think you can say that it's a tough decision for someone to make and the same can be said of the suspension of the season now.

"I think rugby's decision to suspend all activities for six weeks is a really good decision; it's a decision that's been made in advance of other codes in the country ... to lead the pack in that decision is a sign of some strong leadership from Raelene Castle and Rugby Australia.

"Now we need to see some focus shift from the professional side of the game to the impacts on the amateur side of the game, the club competitions. We're all volunteers, we look to Rugby Australia for direction on these sorts of these issues and that's the next step for them is to provide some direction and leadership for the clubs."

The coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions placed on all levels of society will continue to change from day to day. For some, the mere fact that sport is even being discussed amid the crisis will be hard to understand and potentially upsetting.

But such is its place within Australian culture, it will continue to be a part of the daily coronavirus discussions.

Who knows when the suspension or perhaps if any rugby will again be played this year. They are realities the game must confront.

But should a Gilbert not be passed or kicked in any form of organized competition again this season, it seems the clubs are confident they will still be able to emerge on the other side.

And Castle agrees.

"Because it's a really strong game that has a worldwide following and it means something to this country," Castle replied when asked by ESPN why she was confident Australian rugby would emerge from the coronavirus pandemic intact.

"Yes there are going to be some bumps in the road, there's no doubt about that, and we ultimately might have to make some difficult decisions along the way. But the sport's not going anywhere, we've got an amazing rugby community across this country that want to see it survive, that are determined to make sure it comes out bigger and stronger, and we've got the support of those people ... so yes there is going to be some bumpy road but I know that will come out the other end, bigger and strong probably for facing the challenge."