Protocols becoming clearer ahead of rugby's 'summer break'

The timing remains uncertain, despite the announcement of a target date for rugby’s return this August, but the protocols for such a resumption are at least becoming clearer.
Protocols becoming clearer ahead of rugby's 'summer break'
IRFU Chief Executive, Philip Browne

The timing remains uncertain, despite the announcement of a target date for rugby’s return this August, but the protocols for such a resumption are at least becoming clearer.

With so many intangibles surrounding a safe return to everyday life, rugby’s place at the back of the queue in the Irish Government’s Roadmap out of Covid-19 lockdown at least gives the sport a long lead-in to prepare for a Guinness PRO14 interprovincial series currently being scheduled for August 22-23 at Aviva Stadium.

That planned kick-off, revealed by IRFU chief executive Philip Browne during an online media briefing last Friday, falls 12 days after the fifth and final phase of the Roadmap comes into play and five and a half months after the PRO14 was indefinitely suspended as the coronavirus pandemic swept through rugby’s European heartlands.

It is a return date far from set in stone and Browne acknowledged that the Government may well take the country back a step or two if there is a second surge but the CEO said the provinces will need around six weeks, longer ideally, to go through an adequate pre-season-like training period.

"If it's not possible to play then, we have to roll everything back accordingly," Browne added.

The off-season for provincial squads begins next week, initially slated for as a three-week break but like everything else in the age of pandemic, the length could be subject to change and so too, by then, could the return to play protocols.

Whether or not, as has been suggested in some reports, players will have to sign some form of Covid-19-related waiver before they return to work and train as a group remains to be seen. Asked specifically if a waiver will be in play, IRFU chief executive Browne replied: “We have to look at all that sort of stuff.

"As it is, as part of their contract they effectively acknowledge that playing rugby which has some level of inherent risk. To some extent, it's covered already in their contracts but it's something that we'll have to look at.”

It is understood, however, that the suggestion of player waivers was removed from World Rugby’s RTP guidelines, titled “Safe Return to Rugby — in the Context of the Covid-19 Pandemic” and published on April 27, after consultation with global players’ representative body International Rugby Players.

Instead, what will be put before players is more along the lines of a personal declaration that players are symptom-free than an acceptance of liability.

“Each individual (whether Player, Club Coach, Club Support Staff or otherwise) should give written confirmation to the Covid-19 Manager that he/she understands the risks of the disease to at-risk populations and the potential for unintended transmission,” the PRO14’s guideline states in paragraph 3.1 of its Guidelines and Recommended Operating Procedures.

There is also a World Rugby recommendation for the completion of its COVID 19 – Return to Play Awareness Module for Coaches & Players so that there is an acknowledgement that the known risks involved in returning to training and playing have been explained to them.

Though both the World Rugby and PRO14 documents, the latter of which is attached as an appendix to the former, are only guidelines they are currently the only solid protocol in place for now.

Browne said on Friday that the IRFU would be submitting its RTP and event management protocols to Sport Ireland and the Department of Sport within the following 10 days.

There will have to be a testing and monitoring component for players in those protocols, though he warned it would be expensive.

Reports in England suggest that Premiership Rugby’s testing policy for all players ahead of a return to contact training is likely to cost at least £20,000 (€22,500) a week.

“It’s not cheap,” was Browne’s assessment as reported in last Saturday’s Irish Examiner.

“I think that is going to change as time goes on, I would imagine, and there are also issues of testing capacity, access to testing so all of the things are there. They’re all challenges that have to be met.”

There was also the acceptance that if we are to see professional rugby return, the IRFU are going to have to start somewhere, by tucking in and “eating the elephant”, one small bite at a time.

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