It is understood that 5 June is the target date for a competition that will be run as an alternative to Super Rugby, which was suspended on 14 March due to the coronavirus pandemic that has played havoc with top level sporting schedules globally. Details of the competition have not been announced, but it is scheduled to be contested by the four local Super Rugby franchises - the Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Lions - and the South African two PRO14 teams, the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings.
Of course with South Africa in lockdown at the moment and no real certainty when that will end, this may all seem pie in the sky, and the rugby administration is aware of that. There is a possibility that the break from the game will be much more extended than that. The cost-cutting measures, which the rugby industry has agreed in principle to and would entail a targeted R700 million to R1-billion budget cut over the next eight months through an Industry Financial Impact Plan (IFIP), clearly have the worst case scenario, which is that there is no more rugby this year, in mind.
CHALLENGES BEYOND THE WILDEST IMAGINATION
But if the planned competition, which would be scheduled to run until August, does get off the ground the coaches and players are going to have to be ready to face challenges of the sort they would never ever in their wildest imagination have envisaged themselves having to face.
For a start, given the demand for social distancing that has now become a societal norm, you can take it as a certainty that the games will be played in closed stadiums. Possibly at one location in order for the other potential challenges relating to travel to be taken out of the equation. But given that government advisers are predicting that the South African peak in the pandemic will be experienced in September, playing in empty stadiums is just the beginning of what would make it feel strange.
Like the rest of the nation all the players and coaches are in isolation at the moment. And with the date for a return constantly changing, and any kind of return at all in 2020 not as yet a fact, the management teams won’t as yet have started to work on a plan on how to combat the specific challenges that will be posed if rugby is played while the coronavirus is still around.
INJURIES WILL PROVE COMPLICATING
For a start, given what has become expected societal practice over the past two months and is likely to continue to be so for the foreseeable future, injuries sustained in matches played during the pandemic are going to require more jumping through hoops from coaches and medical staff than they normally would.
If a player is injured and has to be treated outside of the squad environment, which is unavoidable for certain injuries, it would be assumed that player would have to go into an immediate 14 day quarantine period before he can return to the team. Presumably from after recovery. This effectively means an injured player who is out for two weeks will effectively be out for four.
Rugby is a high attrition sport, and it is not uncommon for teams to suffer injury epidemics. If a team goes through one of those sequences during the time of coronavirus, and given that the necessity to keep squads small has become even more pressing now, it could leave the coach struggling to field a team.
And then there’s the scenario that the respective franchises will face if, as could happen in even a supposedly highly sanitised environment, one of their players tests positive for Covid-19. It would be assumed that, given accepted societal practice, if that scenario unfolds the entire squad that has come in contact with the infected player will have to go into immediate quarantine for a minimum of 14 days.
So what happens then? Logically it is a situation that, unless you are prepared to forfeit your next game, would demand you have a second string team constantly ready, but kept out of contact with the first team players. That seems an unlikely thing to manage given that these days rugby squads are made up of 23 players and it is unrealistic from a cost viewpoint to have two separate teams training at separate venues.
But it could become a necessity if any kind of competition is to proceed during the time of coronavirus without there being a big risk that it will have to be interrupted again in the event of a positive coronavirus test.
PLAYER SAFETY THE PRIORITY
Although he says no mock plan has been thought up as yet, Stormers assistant coach Dawie Snyman acknowledges that there are many challenges that will have to be confronted once a restart to rugby comes into proper view.
“Player safety will obviously have to be a massive priority when rugby does return and how we go about ensuring that (while ensuring we at the same time meet the demands of a professional sport) is a good question,” said the Stormers assistant coach.
“There are so many variables that right now I don’t have the answer. I am not sure how we going to do it, but you are right, there are going to be big and interesting challenges. Everyone is going to have to be constantly screened, not just the players, and what happens if someone in the squad environment is tested positive?
“It goes beyond that. How are we going to deal with the risks involved and potential exposure that there is when you get on a bus, or a plane, which we will have to do at some point. Much as you want to avoid it, contact with people in public places will be almost unavoidable. Which will increase the need for constant and regular testing.”
A VERY DIFFERENT ENVIRONMENT
The long and the short of it is that rugby squads will be operating in a very different environment to what they have been used to in the past, and as well as getting the players ready for contact again once the lockdown is over, when a date is set for a restart coaches and medical staff are going to have to get their heads around the other myriad challenges that will be faced. And be very meticulous about it.
As some overseas experts have pointed out in media reports, for team sport to start properly again within a sanitised environment it is going to demand a level of isolation normally reserved only for astronauts. Given that people coming and going from the squad and that outside contact, and the different layers of that contact, increases risk of infection, it is also possible players might have to be separated from their families when in competition.
SUPERSPORT CHALLENGE BECOMES CRUCIAL
And as Snyman pointed out, there’s another challenge that will be faced if the other levels of rugby do not resume. SA Rugby announced the cancellation of the various youth weeks scheduled for 2020 on Tuesday, but the SuperSport Rugby Challenge and the provincial under-21 competition are still part of the plans for the year.
The SuperSport Challenge and provincial under-21 teams will become even more important as feeders to the senior team now that injuries at the top have the potential to become so much more complicated, but that level could be impacted if club rugby does not return this year.
“Not having club rugby will have a big impact as that is massive for us,” said Snyman.
“We are always looking for a gem coming through the club system or in the SuperSport Challenge, and not having clubs playing will be a big loss for our feeder system. There was a lot of potential that we spotted in this year’s Varsity Cup but that competition was cut short so we didn’t get a proper look. Hopefully we can get a good Supersport Challenge team (Western Province) together (to make up for the potential lack of the rest of the usual feeder system).”
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