It had to happen sooner or later within Irish professional rugby, but the timing of a positive test for Covid-19 within the Munster training squad has come at a crucial moment in the province’s preparations for the season restart.
The Guinness PRO14’s truncated 2019-20 campaign resumes a week Saturday with a meeting between Munster and defending champions and unbeaten league leaders Leinster, so head coach Johann van Graan could have done without the cancellation of yesterday’s training session following the news that an academy player within the wider training squad tested positive for the novel coronavirus and began self-isolating last Sunday the moment he developed symptoms. Or that one of his senior players and five other academy members have also begun self-isolating having been identified by the province as potential close contacts.
Now the province will wait nervously for the HSE to determine, through their contact tracing process, whether those six, identified from household and social settings, are actually close contacts. If they are, Munster will be without all of them for the interprovincial derby clash behind closed doors at Aviva Stadium on August 22.
The Thursday training schedule that was cancelled when news of the positive test was confirmed contains the second of the week’s main ‘heavy’ contact sessions, leaving Munster’s coaching team just two more, next Tuesday and Thursday, before the trip to Dublin and the season’s resumption against their arch rivals.
Friday’s routine of team and unit meetings will now take place remotely away from Munster’s High Performance Centre and the message from the province was that they were being proactive and overly cautious in taking such measures.
“The health and safety of our players and staff is the priority and that is why we are taking all precautions, going above and beyond, ensuring the safe resumption of training and rugby next week,” Munster Rugby Head of Medical Dr Jamie Kearns said.
“The player involved has not been in the High Performance Centre this week and the HSE have confirmed that the training group are not considered as close contacts. The individual is continuing to be monitored medically and remains well.”
Dr Kearns, who returned to work at University Hospital Galway during the lockdown, added: “There are protocols and policies in place that everyone has been following, and we will continue to be vigilant in all our efforts as we move closer to the return of rugby on Saturday week.”
This is uncharted territory for Irish professional rugby, which up to last Saturday had recorded 607 negative tests and no positives in its screening of the four provincial playing staffs and employees as well as of the national sevens squads.
In England, the Gallagher Premiership restarts Friday night against a background of 28 positive tests since the league’s testing procedures were introduced on July 6 with more than 800 players and non-playing club staff screen on a weekly basis. Of those positives, 20 were players and the show will go on.
Expect Irish rugby to follow suit with indications from within the IRFU that this Munster positive is unlikely to affect the game with Leinster.
With Covid-19 cases spiking once more around the country since lockdown restrictions were eased, the surprise is that the virus took so long to enter the world of professional rugby, however safe the training facilities may be.
The protocols that are in place, though, means it is unlikely that biosecure “bubble” will be breached. Before training every day, players are asked to submit a Covid-19 questionnaire and if symptoms are reported they are told to stay away from their high performance centres and contact the team doctor.
Even if they appear symptom-free, their entrance to the centres is subject to successful temperature scanning at the front door while most of the facilities within, such as communal kitchen and eating areas, remain off-limits. Players continue to turn up ready to train, do their day’s work and then disappear home to shower, eat and recover.
Munster have now become the guinea pig for Irish rugby and they appear to be setting the template for how to successfully manage a positive test. They still await further guidance from the HSE regarding their suspected close contacts and when the senior squad returns to the HPC at the University of Limerick campus on Monday it will be to complete the third phase of the IRFU’s routine PCR testing before final preparations for the Leinster clash get properly underway.
Limerick as a city has experienced a Covid spike in recent days, with seven new cases reported on Monday and Old Crescent RFC on Tuesday announcing a confirmed case in one of its tag rugby players.
“We have contacted the HSE and they are currently carrying out the necessary contact tracing,” an Old Crescent post on its Facebook page read. “In consultation with the HSE and the Irish Tag Rugby Association, Old Crescent RFC has decided to postpone tag rugby this week as a precautionary measure. Further precautionary measures will be taken by the Club to ensure a safe resumption of tag rugby in Old Crescent RFC on Wednesday, 19th August.”