The IRFU's chief medical officer is anticipating a “small number of Covid-19 cases” among the four provincial professional squads, their coaches, and support staff as they return to training in the coming weeks.
Leinster and Munster return to the paddock at their respective high-performance centres in UCD and UL this Monday. Ulster and Connacht follow suit seven days later when they gather at the Sportsgrounds and Kingspan Stadium.
The men's and women's sevens squads are due to return on July 6th.
Dr Rod McLoughlin, speaking to irishrugby.ie, stated that the majority of players are eager to return to work but that there may be a small minority who harbour concerns. No players will be forced to return and a medical committee has been established to deal with any such concerns and queries.
Four League of Ireland clubs - Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, Derry City, and Bohemians - have already returned to training in recent weeks and there have been no positive tests returned after five rounds of testing to date for three of the clubs. Bohemians' latest results are due on Wednesday.
The English Premier League and Football League are also testing their players and support staff with a very low number of positives returned. The last set of figures from the top-flight tests showed just two cases from a pool of up to 1,200 people.
“We would expect given the experience of Covid-19 in the community, that we might have a small number of Covid-19 cases across the whole system,” said Dr McLoughlin.
“And, as part of the pre-screening phase, every player will be assessed for the possibility that they had Covid-19 because there is some concern around people who have previously had the virus returning to high-intensity exercise.
We will assess each player’s lung and cardio health and they will undergo whatever tests necessary for us to be happy that it’s safe for them to return to training.
Leinster's Cian Healy was one of the players who presented for testing on Wednesday and the Ireland and British and Irish Lions prop found the procedure less stressful than anticipated.
“Surprisingly easy and efficient test!” he tweeted. “Fears were greater than reality.”
Surprisingly easy and efficient test! Fears were greater than reality. https://t.co/eWtjbuS1ZN— Cian Healy (@ProperChurch) June 17, 2020
Training will reflect the need to reduce the risk of spreading the virus with the provinces set to prepare in pods of just seven players for the first week and under the watch of one coach.
No pods will come in contact with any other and they will be expanded to groups of 14 working with a pair of coaches in week two.
All involved will also undergo an education phase this week.
This includes an online webinar on how the virus spreads and on the health and safety measures involved when they clock in for work. Among the changes adopted are 20 extra medical protocols around normal daily activities. The full list runs far longer than just that.
The numbers allowed on site will be strictly limited. Only individuals on a registered list will be allowed entry and all must travel to training alone and in their training kit, complete a questionnaire on arrival, and have their temperature taken.
“What you're doing is trying to minimise the risk as much as we can,” said Dr McLoughlin. “We can't remove one hundred per cent of the risk but everything we're doing is designed to ensure the players and staff can return to work safely. They will arrive, train and go home. There will be no showers, changing room facilities, kitchen areas, or video analysis rooms available.”
The four provinces are scheduled to play a pair of interpro derbies behind closed doors at the Aviva Stadium over the weekend of August 22/23. A decision on the return of the Ireland Women's XV side and academy squads will be taken once a fixtures calendar is nailed down.
Dr McLoughlin added that the IRFU have drawn up a range of contingency plans in light of the fluid situation with the pandemic and the uncertainty over what might still be to come.