GREGOR Townsend believes his players have been denied “an excellent learning experience” by World Rugby’s decision to cancel Scotland’s scheduled visits to South Africa and New Zealand as well as all other summer tours. However, the national coach also said he completely understood the decision, which was announced by the global governing body yesterday morning.

Scotland had been due to play the Springboks, who are the reigning world champions, in Cape Town on 4 July and then in Durban seven days later. They were then due to go on to New Zealand to meet the All Blacks in Dunedin on 18 July. That always appeared to be a demanding schedule, coming as it would have done at the end of a season which began with pre-World-Cup training camps in the summer of 2019, but Townsend remained convinced that it would have helped with the development of his squad.

“It has been clear to our players, staff and supporters that the significant impact of Covid-19 across the world has meant international travel at this time was going to be very unlikely in the coming months and so it has proved,” Townsend said in a statement released by Scottish Rugby. “As a team we were generating some positive momentum in the Six Nations and we were all looking forward to the exciting challenge of playing the world champions and the All Blacks on their home soil this summer.

“As a tour it would have provided an excellent learning experience, but we fully understand the reasons why it can’t go ahead. We wish the players, staff and families of both South Africa and New Zealand well at this difficult time and look forward to testing ourselves against them in the future.”

As things stand, Scotland will only have to wait until November to test themselves against the All Blacks, who are one of three teams, along with Argentina and Japan, due to play at Murrayfield in the Autumn Tests. Should those games also be postponed, space would be left in the calendar, safety issues permitting, for the completion of this season’s Six Nations Championship. Scotland have only one of their five fixtures to play, away to Wales, and are currently third behind England and France in the table. Ireland and Italy, unlike the other four, have two rounds of fixtures to fulfil.

Announcing the postponement of the summer tours, World Rugby said it would continue to assess possible alternative arrangements for Test matches in the remainder of the calendar year. “The programme of international rugby matches during the 2020 July window has been postponed due to ongoing government and health agency Covid-19 directives,” it said in a statement. “Extended travel and quarantine restrictions that apply to numerous countries, and concerns over adequate player preparation time, mean that any sort of cross-border international rugby competition cannot be hosted in July.

“Monitoring of the potential impact on the remaining 2020 international windows continues in collaboration with international rugby stakeholders and the respective authorities. All parties, including member unions, international competitions, professional club competitions and International Rugby Players [the global association for pro players] will be involved in the evaluation of potential contingency options with a view to achieving an aligned calendar for the remainder of the year. All decision-making will be entirely contingent on national government travel, quarantine and health and advice and important player welfare and hosting considerations in line with return-to-rugby guidance recently published by World Rugby.”

EPCR, organisers of the Champions and Challenge Cups, announced on Thursday that they hoped to complete this season’s competitions, which are currently at the quarter-final stage, in mid-October. That timing would fit in well with the Autumn Tests, allowing players to regain match fitness at club level before graduating to internationals. But, speaking to journalists the same day, Townsend acknowledged that, for some players at least, there was a possibility that their return to competitive rugby would be at Test level.

“Once we get the green light and the advice from public health allows the players to come back to train, [that] will initially be done on an individual basis and small groups,” he said. “It's two months now the players haven't played rugby or trained properly. Some are lucky because they have gym equipment, but others haven't.

“Whether that takes eight to 12 weeks, it is important that our players are in the best physical condition to go back into a very physical sport. I would imagine the first games they will play will be with the clubs, but who knows. If this delay goes on into November then maybe some players will be coming back into international rugby.”

Other tours cancelled by World Rugby included Wales’ visits to Japan and New Zealand, England’s trip to Japan, Ireland’s series against Australia and France’s tour to Argentina.