Rugby players aware of dangers but eager to get back to play

Government exit plan allows for a resumption of matches from August 10th

Guy Easterby (right) will be part of the Covid team at Leinster. Photo: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Guy Easterby (right) will be part of the Covid team at Leinster. Photo: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

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Professional rugby players in Ireland are currently holidaying for two weeks. Not that they were doing much more than lifting weights in back gardens or kicking practice on nearby patches of grass.

Nor does this hiatus bring them anywhere new.

But life is about to change, again. With the government green light for a resumption of games on August 10th, these finely tuned athletes must make a very serious decision before they can return to collective training. Each individual will have to sign a document accepting the risk posed by the pandemic, not only to themselves but those they live and interact with on a daily basis.

World Rugby’s medical guidelines, sent to all Pro 14 clubs, states:

“Each individual, whether player, club coach, club support staff or otherwise, should give written confirmation to the Covid-19 manager that he or she understands the risks of the disease to at-risk populations and the potential for unintended transmission.”

The Covid-19 manager is a new appointment in every professional club. The person must have “appropriate clinical knowledge” of the coronavirus. Irish provinces are expected to form “Covid teams” so, for example, in Leinster that includes head of rugby operations Guy Easterby and the medical department, which is guided by Professor John Ryan, the lead in Emergency Medicine at St Vincent’s hospital.

Underlying health problems

The “unintended transmission” line might give rise to deeper thought than usual, especially if they have underlying health problems like asthma or diabetes, as that puts them at a greater risk of severe effects if infected by the virus. The conundrum facing a player - secure financial future versus very real health risks - is enhanced if his partner or child has these underlying conditions.

As a result, some professional athletes will be forced to retire.

Cillian De Gascun, the infectious disease expert advising the Irish government, is unable to recommend rugby’s safe return before a vaccine for the coronavirus or anti-viral medicine is discovered. Most administrators, players and coaches will be out of a job if rugby has to wait the minimum of 18 months before a vaccine is distributed globally.

Rugby players - contacted by The Irish Times for this article - are saying the general consensus is a strong desire to return to the field as soon as possible.

Health experts, including De Gascun, are also stating the cure must not prove worse than the disease. Like so many businesses, restarting professional sport, despite the risk that this entails, is eventually going to supersede the fear of infection.

“We will ensure our members are fully informed of all the issues,” said Rugby Players Ireland chief executive Simon Keogh. “We are adhering to advice given by the IRFU, who are taking direction from government.

“There is a fine balance to be struck between financial realities, player health and their families. It’s about trying to make sure we get guys back playing, to keep their jobs, but also to make sure they do so safely.”

The IRFU, like all sports organisations and individual athletes, are awaiting specific dates, stating when training and games can resume, from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Despite losing his seat in the recent General Election, Shane Ross remains the government minister responsible for providing this information.

Rugby was mentioned in last Friday’s easing of restrictions document, despite the obvious need for players to ignore physical distancing recommendations as early as July. Normally there is an eight-week conditioning block before a season starts, but players feel they can be ready with only three weeks of collective preparation.

The ideal scenario would be to mirror New Zealand - the five Super Rugby sides are going to return in June - with a revival of the interprovincial series, potentially on a home and away basis. The42.ie already reported a preliminary Ulster plan to create a training base in Dundalk so all four squads operate under government guidelines in the Republic of Ireland.

Borders

However, the fact that borders and airports have not closed in Ireland or the UK makes it extremely difficult to replicate plans for a trans-Tasman-corridor that both rugby codes in Australia and New Zealand are attempting to create.

What is increasingly apparent is the bubble theory for rugby squads – certainly on this island–- is not going to happen.

“The reality of the situation is we don’t really know if a hotel is any better for a player than staying in their own home because of the new exposure of rooms, of staff, of travelling to and from a hotel. That’s again something that will evolve in time,” said Éanna Falvey, World Rugby’s chief medical officer.

Sources inside the professional game in Ireland indicate the cost of creating such a bubble would be prohibitive.

Players are very keen to do what they do best again, but they are equally united in a desire to be informed about teammates who have symptoms or test positive for Covid-19, in the past and the present.

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