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The Behind-The-Scenes Operations Of Irish Rugby’s Return To Training

Ireland Rugby Squad Training, IRFU High Performance Centre, Sport Ireland Campus, Blanchardstown, Dublin 30/1/2020 Luke McGrath Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Brian Reilly-Troy

Ireland's Luke McGrath training at the IRFU High Performance Centre during the Six Nations. ©INPHO/Brian Reilly-Troy

Temperature check scanning technology, remodelled gym layouts and one-way flow systems — the IRFU’s five designated High Performance Centres will have a very different look and feel to them when the senior provincial squads return to group training for the first time since March this coming Monday.

The prospect of the Leinster and Munster players back in their provincial kits and returning to work from next week, followed by the Ulster and Connacht squads from 29th June, is a hugely significant and encouraging step forward on the IRFU’s Return To Rugby Roadmap, and will certainly generate excitement amongst supporters, but this has not been achieved overnight.

Months and weeks of meticulous planning has allowed the IRFU to proceed to the next stage of the phased Return To Rugby Roadmap, as a number of departments – including Medical, Operations and Athletic Performance – have collaborated and combined to put in place a series of stringent protocols to ensure the players and staff are returning to safely controlled environments.

As outlined by the IRFU’s Medical Director, Dr Rod McLoughlin, the IRFU has worked assiduously during this period with Sport Ireland, the Department of Sport and other sporting bodies to fully understand the measures and practices required for the resumption of group training, initially in small pods of seven players and a coach.

Just as COVID-19 has irrevocably changed how we go about our day-to-day lives, the training routines and structures of the players will be modified to adhere to the protocols and the IRFU’s Operations team has been busily readying and preparing the five High Performance facilities across the four provinces for Monday’s re-opening.

From even before they arrive at the training facility, players and support staff will begin a thorough daily process involving a medical questionnaire before completing a temperature check upon arrival, all of which has been methodically planned and mapped out by the IRFU Operations team, led by Head of Operations, Ger Carmody.

Having progressed through the drafting and preparation period in conjunction with Sport Ireland and the Department of Sport, the focus has now switched to the implementation of the medical plans and procedures, with this being a particularly strenuous operational period requiring of the expertise and experience of a number of departments across the IRFU.

Central to the installation of the supporting infrastructure for a safe return to training has been the IRFU High Performance Centre Facilities and Operations Manager, Gillian McDarby, who has also taken on the role of COVID-19 Manager for the IRFU High Performance Centre, where the Ireland Men’s and Women’s Sevens squads are due to return from Monday, 6th July.

McDarby is part of a working group established to align all the COVID-19 Managers from each of the five High Performance facilities – the IRFU HPC on the Sport Ireland Campus, Connacht’s HPC at the Sportsgrounds, Leinster’s HPC at UCD, Munster’s HPC at University of Limerick and Ulster’s HPC at Kingspan Stadium – and provide a network for the relevant personnel in each of the provinces to share information and knowledge.

“It is really important as we near the return of the players to each of the High Performance Centres that we’re all aligned and together in what we’re doing,” McDarby tells IrishRugby.ie. “It’s absolutely essential we’re doing the right thing but we’re also all doing the same thing and that’s where the network has been really useful during this planning and preparation phase.

“While I’ve been providing guidance to the provinces on how to re-open their High Performance Centre, I’ve been able to bounce things off Rod, Ger and Scott [Walker, the IRFU’s Director of Strategy and Technology] and it really has been a big team effort. We’re not going to get things 100% perfect because it’s an ever-evolving situation but we need to be certain we’ve covered all the bases so that when the players and staff do come back in, they know they’re in a safe environment to work.”

While McDarby has been on the ground overseeing the installation of signage, hand-hygiene stations and check in and check out areas at the IRFU High Performance Centre, the players and support staff from Leinster and Munster have started the medical pre-screening and education process in advance of their return to training.

Having identified the education piece as a key phase, Carmody, Walker and the IRFU’s Training and Education Manager, Colin Moran, have rolled out a curriculum for the players to complete through an online portal that will help them understand the symptoms of COVID-19, the risks of transmission and the measures in place at their particular training facility.

“We’ve used a platform called GAINLINE that allows us to roll out the online modules to the players and they can go on their phone or laptop and complete the education,” Carmody explains. “We’ll then get a notification from each player when that’s done and that process started on Wednesday for the Leinster and Munster squads.

“The players will then sit in on a webinar with the team doctors and Rod and this will act as the second phase in the education process before they can proceed to the training stage from Monday. There will then also be daily briefings from the coach who trains them because this is an ever-changing scenario so there is a need there to have an ongoing education structure at all of our High Performance Centres as we monitor the situation closely.”

The COVID-19 Managers will monitor the Government and Medical guidelines on a daily basis and, among various roles and responsibilities, they will ultimately oversee the implementation of the COVID-19 Management Plan for all players and staff members in their facility.

At the IRFU High Performance Centre on the Sport Ireland Campus, players and staff will be greeted by a temperature check screening system upon arrival at check-in, which will not only record their body temperature to ensure it is below 37.5°C but also electronically log the date and time of their entry and departure for contact tracing purposes.

“We’ve tried to make every step as simple as possible,” McDarby continues. “We don’t want anything to become a cumbersome process that people will actually start to ignore as time goes on. What has been really beneficial for us is to closely watch how other facilities in Ireland and across the world have implemented their processes and we’ve been able to take learnings from New Zealand, for example.

“They used a simple QR code scan for entry to their High Performance facilities and while we looked at using that here, it wouldn’t have been enough for us at the stage we’re at in Ireland because we need to make sure we can check the temperatures of players and staff each day. So we touched base with the Institute of Sport beside us here on the Sport Ireland Campus and they shared the knowledge and information they had on the temperature checking systems they were using and that informed us of what we needed.”

While each High Performance Centre will be slightly different in terms of layout and exact systems, both Carmody and McDarby stress the importance of a unified approach across all four provinces to minimise the health risk to players and support staff alike.

Once an individual has completed their daily questionnaire at home, travelled to the High Performance Centre alone, signed in and completed their temperature check on arrival, they will then proceed to the gym or training pitch via an unidirectional flow system designed to avoid any contact with players or staff outside of their training pod. All of this will be clearly sign-posted and the facility monitored by the COVID-19 Manager to ensure there is full compliance at all times.

In addition to separate gym regions, dedicated walking zones and a strict equipment cleaning policy, there will be no shower or changing facilities available to players or staff, while common areas, meeting spaces and video analysis rooms will be off limits for the foreseeable future.

“It has been an extremely busy time for everyone readying the facilities again but we’re all doing this for one reason and that’s to get rugby back,” McDarby adds.

“A huge amount of hours and thought has gone into putting these plans in place and we now need the players and staff to be accountable for their actions and understand that to get back to where we want to be, these protocols must be followed and I’ve no doubt everyone will come together and do everything they can to make this work.”

Carmody shares the same optimism as months of behind-the-scenes planning comes to fruition.

“We all realise that life has changed during this period so adapting to the new structures at our training and work facilities is something we all have to do,” he says. “It’s really important everybody embraces the changes and works together to ensure we make our environments as safe as possible and ultimately keep making progress on the Return To Rugby journey. It will be a challenge but the key thing all along has been to work together and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”