THE withdrawal of Jamie Ritchie from Edinburgh’s squad for tomorrow [Saturday] night’s clash against the Ospreys at Murrayfield, and of Glasgow Warriors duo Zander Fagerson and Tom Gordon from their team’s slightly earlier meeting with Connacht in Galway, serves as a timely reminder of just how fragile the return of professional rugby is on the eve of the first round of matches in the 2020-21 PRO14 season.
None of the players mentioned have tested positive to COVID-19, but they have been exposed to people who have been exposed to the virus, which means they must self-isolate until the middle of next week – which is a successful outcome in terms of demonstrating that Scottish Rugby’s protocols to protect against the threat are effective, but doesn’t make life easy for the coaches, those poor sods who are charged with getting as strong a team as possible out on the park every weekend.
“Neither of them are ill, neither of them have tested positive,” stressed Danny Wilson of his two Warriors players who have been ruled out this weekend. “We’re all expecting more and more of this, unfortunately. Hopefully we can reduce that risk as much as possible, but the risk is always going to be there. While the numbers have grown quite considerably in Glasgow, we’re probably substantially at risk when boys live in Glasgow.”
“We have some plans in place for how we deal with this when the international period kicks off [in just over a week’s time],” Wilson added. “Most teams are around the 15-20 percent injury-rate at any given time in the season, so you’re going to have that to deal with. Then you’re going to have the COVID responses that we’ve got to be ready for, and they come very quickly, as I’ve experienced, and things can change literally overnight.
“So that’s part of our challenge. Same for us, same for everybody. You certainly have to have Plan B up your sleeve to cover situations that may be quite serious if they come. If they don’t come, then great, but if they do, we’ve got to be ready for it.
“I think whoever deals with this challenge the best is ultimately going to have the most success. I think there will be times during this year where we’ll see teams and selections and say ‘where’s that one come from?’ But they’ll probably be related to the situation we’re all dealing with.”
Over in the east, Richard Cockerill has only one player out due to the shadow of COVID this week, but has also recently had to contend with an academy player putting his team’s Challenge Cup quarter-final clash against Bordeaux-Begles in doubt by contracting the virus after attending a house party.
“It’s certainly different, isn’t it?” he surmised, with a weary shrug. “With fixture differences in terms of the days we play, not really knowing what we are going to be doing post-Christmas, more internationals than there have ever been, a global pandemic … yeah, it is going to be a challenging season. But we’ve got to just manage it the best we can, react as it is happening and be flexible.”
There is a kind of blitz spirit about the way the coaches are handling the situation. They are paid to win games – that is what their contracts demand of them – and although COVID will provide a leeway that wouldn’t normally be there, it is not in the genetic make-up of professional sports people to be content with muddling through.
The giant roulette wheel
Cockerill’s way of rationalising it is that professional rugby is in a privileged position to be playing at all at a point in time when the return of amateur sport across the country is getting pushed back until January 2021 at the earliest, and when people working in other industries are stuck in furlough as helpless onlookers while their jobs spin around in a giant roulette wheel.
With privilege comes responsibility. The future of pro sport is far from guaranteed. No crowds in the Six Nations would be the doomsday scenario, and while it will be the executives and politicians that have to tackle that issue, the players must do their bit to make sure that rugby is still stumbling on when decision-time comes.
“If you are going to be in this professional environment you have to take the rules and regulations very seriously – you don’t want to put anybody at risk,” said Cockerill.
“For example, on Monday night my son had a temperature of 38C so I was not at training on Tuesday. We took him for a test and thankfully it came back negative so I was back in Wednesday. I am the head coach and want to be here but not to the detriment of the team.
“So, we all have a responsibility and the rules apply to everybody. Whether you are me or a junior player or a senior international. There are guidelines you have to abide by and if that takes you out for a day, or a week, or two weeks, because that is the circumstance, then we just have to get on with it.
“That’s where we are at. If we all think that the rules don’t apply to me then we’ll all end up in a place we don’t want to be.”
Getting used to inconvenience
The lengths teams must go to in order to protect themselves means that even if a clean bill of health is reported at the weekend, considerable compromises have had to be made in terms of preparation for the game.
“We have testing 48 hours after a game and until then we don’t do any training that will put you at risk of contracting COVID-19,” Cockerill explained. “That means, we have to manage the week slightly differently, and organise the contact parts like set-piece until after we get the results back so that we don’t put anyone at risk of being in contact with an infected person for more than 15 minutes.
“We can monitor it with GPS and other parts. All of our rugby training is outside, lots of our weight training and conditioning is outside, all meetings are socially distanced in the large corporate rooms at Murrayfield, we are strict about face-masks, and all those things.
“You just have to be very diligent around it because as you’ve seen, one player has tested positive and thankfully our process and protocols were so strong that that person didn’t take anyone else out.
“The key is that as it becomes more of the norm, we don’t start to relax our standards around things like making sure we are two metres apart when you are sitting having lunch and so on.
“There is going to be changes – good and bad – along the way,” he concluded. “All we can do is get the best team on the field, prepare them as well as we can, and go out to win as many games as we can.”