The IRFU launched a Club Competition Season Outline for 2020/21 on July 9th 2020.
It was a modified format driven by a principle to focus on player welfare and COVID-19 Risk Mitigation.
To look at the reasoning behind this principle, IrishRugby.ie caught up with IRFU Medical Director Rod McLoughlin.
Irish Rugby.ie: The IRFU launched a season outline for 2020/21 yesterday. It’s a modified season, albeit a one-off season and it stated clearly that player welfare and COVID-19 risk management were the drivers behind that. Can you talk us through the approach?
Rod McLoughlin: The IRFU have had adopted a graduated return to rugby framework right from the beginning and we have asked clubs to return in the same way. That means going back in smaller groups for short durations and modifying the nature of the activity as we work towards the reintroduction of full contact over a period of time.
Now we’re taking that same approach with our competitions. In other words, we must play games locally before we go All-Ireland. We’re attempting to limit the amount of travel and interaction because that limits the chance of the spread of the virus.
We’ve had some reminders this week that the R Rate is rising and the concern particularly for us is the occurrence in the younger population who typically play field sports.
I sit on the Return To Sport Expert Group and the graduated return is something that we’re very conscious of – people are coming together in numbers for the first time after lock down and that is a time of relative risk.
So, everything that we’re looking to do is graded. We do that so we can take more steps forwards than backwards. We can’t go straight to a national competition for clubs and then find out that in doing so, we’re contributing to the spread of the virus across the country.
IR: In Stage 1 of the outline, we have to keep rugby within provincial lines. It’s not an uncommon type of risk management, but why do we need it?
RMcL: Getting back to what we’ve said in the document, experiences in other countries inform us that the development of localised clusters is a real concern. It’s been in the news this week that the state of Victoria in Australia has been locked down. Initially they tried to shut down areas in Melbourne where they felt there were clusters and now have had to close down the whole state.
What we’re trying to do is control our return so that we don’t become a contributor to a cluster or if we have an issue, it is limited by a graded introduction of normal competition and we pick it up early to limit further spread.
We’re not doing all this because we feel that rugby is a greater risk than other activities. Virus transmission is about 19 times less outdoors than indoors. We’re doing it to create as safe an environment within rugby as we can.
IR: The IRFU have followed government guidance throughout our return to rugby. As we move into the contact and competition stages of our roadmap, we await definitions around close contact and casual contacts to COVID-19 cases in field sports. What more can you tell us about that?
RMcL: This is something we’re working on the moment with the Expert Group and liaising with an expert that advises NEPHT. The idea of close contact in sport is a very challenging area but we’re looking to see how we can provide operational definitions that work for sport.
Certainly, at the moment if you are within two metres of a COVID-19 case for more than 15 minutes, you are a close contact and would have to self-isolate for 14 days.
It’s not so clear with casual contacts and the local health authority will need to make a decision on how to manage those.
It’s not an easy thing to get an answer to, but it is something we’re working on and we will know in time.
IR: Can you see a scenario in the next 6-12 months where field sports events will be cancelled because of COVID-19?
RMcL: Looking at what’s happened in the rest of the world – in England we had Championship matches cancelled because of COVID. We’ve had Bundesliga matches cancelled because of COVID, we’ve have had golf tournaments in America cancelled because of COVID and we’ve had AFL and NFL matches in Australia cancelled because of COVID.
So yes, I think it is a reasonable possibility. Clearly what will help minimise that is a low prevalence within the community. Thankfully at the moment, we have a low prevalence within the community so it’s a low likelihood, but the concern is the rising R value. It is certainly a possibility.
Australia was very like us in terms of its prevalence and it’s had to close down games so I think it would be unreasonable of us to expect that we will be different, and we certainly need to plan around that as a potential outcome.
IR: What we do as individuals will keep us safe, keep others safe and keep rugby safe. Is it fair to say though that good hand hygiene and coughing etiquette are actually nothing new in a high performance environment?
RMcL: My first big elite sport interaction was the Beijing Olympics and when we reviewed what happened to athletes there, we found that the most common things that people got in terms of sickness at Olympic Games were upper respiratory tract symptoms and infection and gastro-intestinal problems.
For the London Olympics and since then, we have been driving good hand hygiene and cough etiquette and have significantly reduced the risk of these conditions and we’ve been driving it across high performance sport for many years. It doesn’t just protect us against COVID-19, but it will protect us against some of the commonest conditions that sporting people get that impairs their ability to perform to their best or even to enjoy their sporting activity.
It is a behaviour we hope that people will continue with into the future because we will have other conditions to mitigate against.
IR: What about collective behaviours?
RMcL: We are trying to change people’s behaviour and broadly speaking there are three things we need to do that.
We need to all buy into this and understand why we’re doing it so let’s be clear – we’re doing all of this to get rugby, the game we love, back onto the pitch so that we can have that enjoyment, fund and camaraderie back again.
We need our team ethic more than ever. I can protect my team-mates; they can protect me and success on us all doing that.
We also need to watch the behaviour of our teammates and point out unsafe behaviour in a supportive way. And if it’s pointed out to us, that’s our cue to look at our own behaviours and make sure we’re doing the right thing.
IR: Rod, thank you very much for your time.