Top doc Éanna Falvey warns rugby changes needed to protect players from coronavirus

World Rugby’s leading doctor, Éanna Falvey has reiterated the need for temporary changes in the way the sport is played in order to minimise the risk of spreading Covid-19 during matches.
Top doc Éanna Falvey warns rugby changes needed to protect players from coronavirus
Dr. Eanna Falvey. .Picture:Des Barry
Dr. Eanna Falvey. .Picture:Des Barry

World Rugby’s leading doctor, Éanna Falvey has reiterated the need for temporary changes in the way the sport is played in order to minimise the risk of spreading Covid-19 during matches.

The Chief Medical Officer for rugby’s global governing body, former Ireland team doctor Falvey said today that the initial proposals for cutting scrum resets when the game resumed following its shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic had been misconstrued as an attempt to ban scrummaging. The Corkman, however, used detailed research results to make a strong case for the suggestion in countries where Covid-19 cases had not been fully suppressed.

Professional rugby has resumed without law changes in New Zealand, where the outbreak has been controlled and will restart in Australia this weekend but rugby in Ireland will not kick off again until August 22.

“The risk in Covid, it’s not sweat, it’s not touching somebody, it’s breathing their air,” Falvey told Keith Wood on his State of the Union programme on OTB AM on Thursday. “So tackling somebody around the ankles or around the hips, you’re not really going to be breathing their air in an outdoor scenario.

“But if you’re upright and you’re face to face with somebody, say, for example, in a choke tackle, and you’re there for three or four seconds, you are breathing their air and that’s probably an exposure right there. Similarly, if you tackle somebody on the ground and you’re fighting for a ball and your heads are in close proximity, that’s a contact as well.

“So what we looked at was, we got the game analysis guys, Rhys Jones and Ben Hester did some phenomenal work on this. We looked at 60 games and all the phases of play where there was close contact, so the scrum, the lineout and the maul and we looked at rucks and upright tackles, basically, and coded those through the game and looked at what players and positions were most involved.

“Basically, the props and the second rows did the most, followed closely by the hookers and back rows. They were all up over 10 minutes of cumulative time in that type of situation. We were comparing that to the 15 minutes described by the WHO and that was where we came up with the idea of looking at changing around the reset of the scrum and being as good as we could around the high-tackle sanction framework to bring down the tackle height down and prevent those.

“So they were ideas where we were trying to limit those contacts. Unfortunately what happens in a lot of these things is that people read the headline and they don’t read the rest of the information and they come out with ‘people are trying to ban scrums’ and all this kind of thing but not at all.

“What we were looking at was in an average game there were nine-and-a-half scrums and those take a cumulative 18 seconds from when a scrum comes together to four seconds after the ball leaves, which gives forwards four seconds to pick themselves up and get out of each other’s space.

“If you have a reset scrum you have a set, an engagement, a collapse or a break, players come back up and face each other and reset again and it’s 61 seconds on average for those and there are three-and-a-half to four of those in a game. So the time spent in that reset scrum phase was more than all of the scrums put together.

“Allied to this we’ve got some more information. There’s a modelling company in Belgium who did some work for the BBC and we were in contact with them last week. They did some really incredible modelling where they modelled for your airway droplets and they show that when the players come together for the scrum and come down they are breathing downwards and if the air is falling, that has a high droplet load or heavier droplets, it’s going onto the grass and blowing out from underneath. So the actual phase of the scrum is probably a lower risk than when you’re up and facing each other, about to engage. That’s the dangerous part.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about this but what we tried to do is see was there any way to cut down what we call high-transmission-risk contact. I don’t know if there’s going to be any change in that but that is what we looked at.”

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