Professional rugby return date to be announced within next fortnight

Super Rugby
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

A date for professional rugby's return could be announced in the next week as Rugby Australia prepares to make its submission to government for the competition's return.

Rugby Australia is planning on submitting its plans to governments for a return to play by Monday and general manager of high performance Ben Whitaker, also part of the return to play committee, is hopeful that a date can be pencilled in by the end of next week.

Initially a domestic competition had been slated to kick off on April 3 and that date was pushed back to May 1, a deadline that ultimately restrictions rendered obsolete.

The return to play committee, which includes Whitaker, Rugby Australia head of government relations Anthony French, Rebels CEO Baden Stephenson and playmaker Matt To'omua, is now focused on a July return for the competition, with a lead-in of at least three weeks' full training beforehand.

Once the planning documents have been submitted, with a number of competition proposals allowing for differing time frames included, and comments received it is expected that a tentative date will be revealed.

"I think we’re looking that once we get comments back from government next week then we’ll be in a position to really start to promote the return date that can be achieved and we're set up to be able to secure a whole lot of things around venues and travel logistics as well," he said.

The Levels that rugby has to meet to progress back to full training. Photo: AIS"We’ve got a couple of goal dates depending on comments on our plan that goes to government and any shift or change in some of the stages of restrictions being relaxed or reduced," he said.

"Our plan mentions June/July and we're well set up to be ready to play with the appropriate preparation.

Rugby's progress on a return to play come on the backdrop of the release of national guidelines for the return of sport both professional and community 

The AIS Framework for rebooting sport in a COVID-19 Environment includes 15 principles under which professional and community sport could return.

Each major sport has a Level A, B and C when it comes to returning to play.

Currently rugby is at Level A which is essentially isolated training, Level B allows for non-contract skills and drills in groups of up to 10, including staff and players, while Level C is normal training and competition.

Gatherings of up to 10 people have already been allowed in WA this week, regardless of the reason, but it is the only one of states with a professional rugby team that has eased to this level.

What isn't specified in the framework is any expected timeline for the transition between levels, with that dependent on the progress of the management of COVID-19 and the level of community transmission in the time.

The framework also says that any change in the positive progress Australia has been making in containing the disease or if a player were to contract the disease, could trigger a reversal of any relaxations.

Whitaker said any plan for professional rugby to return would need teams to be in full contact training for at least three full weeks, and ideally four, with room to move for a match in the fourth week. 

"We’ve got a desire to see teams in full training for up to four weeks, including the week of the game, and that's a really important aspect for us around contact continuity and the various unit sections of the game," he said.

"That’s with the expectation and knowledge that you come into that four weeks of full training having trained at various levels beforehand, such as in groups of 10 and underneath that what we’re doing now , training in isolation in ones or twos."

While NRL and AFL have proposed quarantine hubs in particular states, Whitaker said their primary plan was to have a competition that allowed for interstate travel, something he is optimistic of.

"I think that’s everyone’s desire, to have players be able to be based at home," he said.

"We modelled up the other scenarios and had a look at those, if it had to be executed that way then we’d be ready but if rugby’s up and running then we'd expect so will be the opportunity to cross state and territory borders."

What is clear is that any competition will be played in "spectator-free" environments regardless of the venue.

While the professional return date is yet to be locked in, Queensland and New south Wales have announced their own return dates in the past week.

NSW's Shute Shield has pencilled in a return date of July 25 while the Queensland Premier Rugby competition and the remainder of the community competitions are scheduled to kick off on July 4.

Queensland's model has been created working backwards from an October 31 grand final date, with the flexibility to pick up the competition at any stage should their proposed date be pushed back at all.

Whether Australia's Test stars could be available for a club rugby stint should community rugby get started before Super Rugby would depend on the amount of full training they can get under their belt.

The Northern Territory could be the first territory to be back playing rugby with the region announcing the easing of restrictions as well.

In other major sports, the NRL is still pushing towards a May 28 restart date while the AFL is in the stages of working through its plans with governments as well.

NATIONAL PRINCIPLES FOR RETURN OF SPORT

1. Resumption of sport and recreation activities can contribute many health, economic, social and cultural benefits to Australian society emerging from the COVID-19 environment.

2. Resumption of sport and recreation activities should not compromise the health of individuals or the community.

3. Resumption of sport and recreation activities will be based on objective health information to ensure they are conducted safely and do not risk increased COVID-19 local transmission rates.

4. All decisions about resumption of sport and recreation activities must take place with careful reference to these National Principles following close consultation with Federal, State/Territory and/or Local Public Health Authorities, as relevant.

5. The AIS ‘Framework for Rebooting Sport in a COVID-19 Environment’ provides a guide for the reintroduction of sport and recreation in Australia, including high performance sport.  The AIS Framework incorporates consideration of the differences between contact and non-contact sport and indoor and outdoor activity. Whilst the three phases A, B and C of the AIS Framework provide a general guide, individual jurisdictions may provide guidance on the timing of introduction of various levels of sport participation with regard to local epidemiology, risk mitigation strategies and public health capacity.

6. International evidence to date is suggestive that outdoor activities are a lower risk setting for COVID-19 transmission. There are no good data on risks of indoor sporting activity but, at this time, the risk is assumed to be greater than for outdoor sporting activity, even with similar mitigation steps taken.

7. All individuals who participate in, and contribute to, sport and recreation will be considered in resumption plans, including those at the high performance/professional level, those at the community competitive level, and those who wish to enjoy passive (non-contact) individual sports and recreation. 

8. Resumption of community sport and recreation activity should take place in a staged fashion with an initial phase of small group (10) activities including full contact training/ competition in sport. Individual jurisdictions will determine progression through these phases, taking account of local epidemiology, risk mitigation strategies and public health capability. a. This includes the resumption of children’s outdoor sport with strict physical distancing measures for non-sporting attendees such as parents. b. This includes the resumption of outdoor recreational activities including (but not limited to) outdoor-based personal training and boot camps, golf, fishing, bush-walking, swimming, etc.

9. Significantly enhanced risk mitigation (including avoidance and physical distancing) must be applied to all indoor activities associated with outdoor sporting codes (e.g. club rooms, training facilities, gymnasia and the like).

10. For high performance and professional sporting organisations, the regime underpinned in the AIS Framework is considered a minimum baseline standard required to be met before the resumption of training and match play, noting most sports and participants are currently operating at level A of the AIS Framework.

11. If sporting organisations are seeking specific exemptions in order to recommence activity, particularly with regard to competitions, they are required to engage with, and where necessary seek approvals from, the respective State/Territory and/or Local Public Health Authorities regarding additional measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread.

12. At all times sport and recreation organisations must respond to the directives of Public Health Authorities. Localised outbreaks may require sporting organisations to again restrict activity and those organisations must be ready to respond accordingly. The detection of a positive COVID-19 case in a sporting or recreation club or organisation will result in a standard public health response, which could include quarantine of a whole team or large group, and close contacts, for the required period.

13. The risks associated with large gatherings are such that, for the foreseeable future, elite sports, if recommenced, should do so in a spectator-free environment with the minimum support staff available to support the competition. Community sport and recreation activities should limit those present to the minimum required to support the participants (e.g. one parent or carer per child if necessary).

14. The sporting environment (training and competition venues) should be assessed to ensure precautions are taken to minimise risk to those participating in sport and those attending sporting events as spectators (where and when permissible).

15. The safety and well-being of the Australian community will be the priority in any further and specific decisions about the resumption of sport, which will be considered by the COVID-19 Sports and Health Committee.