Medical staff in Australian rugby teams are collaborating with colleagues from other codes and sports, and the Australian Institute of Sport, to figure out best-practice standards for player safety amid unprecedented levels of bushfire smoke.
The bushfire crisis in Australia has seen air quality nosedive sharply in the cities of Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne over the past few months, and pollution levels climb to seven and eight times the levels considered healthy for the general population.
High performance athletes training in smoke are considered even more vulnerable given the increased volumes they take in, and rugby is one of a number of sports who've had to hurriedly establish policies and practices about when it is, and isn’t, safe to be training and competing.
Of the cities, Canberra has been affected most by the smoke inundation from fires raging to its north, east and south, and cricket, basketball, soccer and tennis fixtures have already been cancelled there due to “hazardous” air quality levels.
The Brumbies this week moved their entire training base to Newcastle, and the Canberra Raiders have also moved their pre-season training to the Sunshine Coast.
There are well-established policies and match day protocols in most sports about player safety in extreme heat but no Australian sports or codes - including rugby - have previously had to consider pollution policies.
They are now critical, particularly with concerns about not only short-term health impacts of smoke-carried micro-particles in the lungs, but the long-term health consequences of exposure as well.
Although no fires have threatened the Nations Capital (Canberra), heavy smoke from bushfires burning throughout New South Wales is having a major impact on Canberra. pic.twitter.com/akPcQwrDnX— Patrick Mills (@Patty_Mills) January 6, 2020
Medical staff at the Australian Super Rugby teams, under the co-ordination of Rugby Australia chief medical officer Warren McDonald, have been part of a collegiate approach to the new challenge by many sporting bodies including rugby league, cricket, tennis and football.
Doctors and trainers have been sharing tips and information about playing and setting training schedules in poor air quality.
Most are following guideline documents created by the AIS, whose sports scientists have the most experience in dealing with air pollution and high performance after the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
"It’s obviously been unprecedented for most of us, with none of us having had to deal with this before,” Waratahs doctor Etienne Du Preez said.
"We all end probably drawing from the same pool of knowledge, we are a small fraternity in sports medicine. So we have colleagues in Sydney working in rugby league … and also the guys down in Canberra are being hit harder then we have been obviously.
These are not fun times. Please bring some rain. NSW bushfires continue to burn and blanket Sydney once more. Not sure play on the final day of the Shield match at the SCG between NSW and QLD should have gone ahead. It was crazy out there. From up high you can normally see the city behind the stands. If you go back a few posts you will see. Yesterday no chance.
"So we speak to them and also listening to what the guys do with the cricket, and we have colleagues working in tennis, there is a big tennis tournament going on in Sydney at the moment.
"Everyone is facing the same issues, and not only having to deal with local athletes but potentially international athletes as well coming over. You have to make sure we are doing right by everyone.
"Everyone is putting their heads together. The guys who usually do the best work on this are down at the AIS, they’re the best minds in sports medicine and they can draw information from across the world.
"They have released quite a good guidelines on smoke pollution and exercise and everyone is just following those guidelines. You keep an eye on air quality and if it gets too high you can move the session until the air quality is better, or move it indoors if it’s going to be a bad day.”
"I know....the air quality was terrible but we're like hundreds of kilometres from it. Imagine the people there, it's on their doorstep."— RUGBYcomau (@rugbycomau) December 13, 2019
You won't hear @NSWWaratahs forward Ned Hanigan complaining about the #SydneySmoke as bushfires rage across NSW.https://t.co/nqDD76FL5k
There is no strictly applied threshold for when it is deemed too dangerous to play but the the AIS guidelines say it is not healthy for strenuous exercise to be undertaken when the Air Quality Index (AQI) is more than 150.
Canberra had readings of 600-700 - with extremes of well over 1000 - in recent weeks.
Rugby Union Players Association boss Justin Harrison said his organisation was in regular communication with McDonald about Australian players training safely during the bushfire-affected summer, and were comfortable with the guidelines and training practices being used.
"It is a combination of common sense and monitoring it on an hourly basis, with Warren and the medical staff, and limiting exposure and risk at all times,” Harrison said.
"So things like if it’s a lineout session, it can be done indoors. Any high intensity running stuff is going to be monitored very closely about when and where they train. There’s no set number, or not yet anyway.”
With forecasts for fires to continue burning for many more weeks in NSW and Victoria, and impacting the ACT, Harrison also said RUPA had also contacted SANZAAR to ascertain whether it would be establishing an official match day protocol on what air quality levels would be deemed too unsafe for Super Rugby games to proceed.
"It is certainly a big consideration. The end of January, first games, there is every possibility that the air quality is not going to be good. It’s off the charts in Canberra at the moment,” Harrison said.
A SANZAAR spokesman said the governing body did not have a match day protocol on air quality but said tournament officials would work closely with Rugby Australia and medical staff in coming weeks about the threats posed, and common sense solutions if hazardous conditions arise.
SANZAAR largely apply match day protocols created by World Rugby, and it it appears the governing body has been consulted on the issue of a relevant air quality policy.
Brumbies chief executive Phil Thompson said on Sunday that guidance on air quality had been sought from World Rugby in recent weeks.
Cricket Australia and Football Federation Australia have both been leaving it until late on match day to monitor AQI levels and make calls on whether A-League, W-League and BBL games go ahead.
Smoke stops play at Manuka Oval pic.twitter.com/Ubx5nZjzhe— Andrew Greene (@AndrewBGreene) December 21, 2019
All hope the devastating bushfires - and related air quality concerns - will dissipate before there are potential impacts on Super Rugby, but if fires burn until the end of February as forecast, the Brumbies’ first three home games could be affected.
They host the Reds in Canberra on January 31, the Rebels on February 7 and the Highlanders on February 15, before a month-long trip on the road and a return home in mid-March. It would be a cruel blow for the Brumbies to have to consider shifting games given they'd hoped to make some much-needed revenue, and build momentum, from a rare string of three home games up-front.
Theoretically, there is potential wriggle room for swapping the Reds and Rebels games with their second derby fixtures later in the season, in Brisbane and Melbourne.
The Waratahs play away in round one in Christchurch and then helpfully meet the Blues in Newcastle first-up on February 8. They then don’t play at home until meeting the Lions on February 28 at Bankwest Stadium.
NSW will host a trial against the Highlanders on January 17 at Leichhardt Oval, however, and the Brumbies are due to play the Rebels in a trial in Albury on January 23.