EXPLAINED | When and how will rugby's return to training commence?

Ruhan Nel, Stormers centre, trains at home. (Gallo Images)
Ruhan Nel, Stormers centre, trains at home. (Gallo Images)
  • 100 days into South Africa's lockdown, rugby still hasn't received clearance from the government to commence its Return-to-Training protocols, but the federation says approval is "imminent".
  • Once given the green light, teams will first need to conclude a round of Covid-19 testing, which various unions have already done this week.
  • However, it's not the availability of test kits that is the major challenge in this regard, but rather the capacity of laboratories to produce decent turnaround times as overall infection rates soar.
  • Initially, players are only allowed to engage in non-contact training, which - ironically - is fraught with almost as much risk as full contact. 

Saturday signals 100 days of lockdown in South Africa.

Much like various other spheres of interest in the country, sport has had to navigate the rough ride.

However, by the end of last week, the majority of codes had either their Return-to-Play or Return-to-Training protocols approved by the government.

Yet one of the big fish still stuck in limbo is rugby.

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Sport24 understands that all 14 unions had been informed about a fortnight ago that their teams would tentatively need to steel themselves for a 6 July re-start date for non-contact training.

Currently, that won't happen.

All parties insist there is nothing sinister behind the delay, with the sports ministry last week "pleading for patience" from all federations awaiting approval as the department scrutinises protocol submissions.

As the clock continues to tick, what is the state of affairs and what happens when rugby gets the green light?

As things stand

SA Rugby has been one of the most proactive federations in setting up its framework for resumption, which does render the sport's continued "isolation" a bit surprising.

That protocol document though had to be hastily revised after Cricket South Africa's initial Solidarity Cup fiasco shed light on the issue of training and hosting of matches in Covid-19 hotspot areas, which requires additional clearance.

In a statement, SA Rugby noted that nine of the country's 14 unions are located in regions with upward infection trajectories, prompting it to seek "clarification".

It seems that has been received.

"We are imminently expecting the government's revert," a SA Rugby spokesperson confirmed to Sport24.

More importantly, the federation expects there to be "very little lag" between government giving the green light and players commencing training.

"It will only be for the players to be tested and the results to be returned - a day or two," was the official word.

Logistically though, the "day or two" might be longer.

The uncertainty of test results

Various top franchises completed their Covid-19 testing this past week, specifically to accommodate for a potential delay in the processing and release of results. 

The Cheetahs did a round of testing on Wednesday, while the Lions and several others set aside Thursday and Friday for that purpose.

Unions have been able to source sufficient test kits through different means, with some coordinating with players organisation MyPlayers and the Lions, for example, using team doctor Rob Collins' association with the Gift of the Givers Foundation.

But even the most proactive planning runs the risk of becoming irrelevant as laboratories struggle for capacity to handle a surge in testing samples due to the pronounced rise in infections. 

Lancet, one of South Africa's largest private laboratories, on Thursday sent a communique discouraging various categories of people - including return-to-work individuals - to not use its service points in order to prioritise better turnaround times for more pressing groups.

"I think that's the main thing people need to understand. Sport teams are subject to the same procedures as a normal citizen," Pieter Visser, general manager at the Lions and the coordinator of the franchise's Covid committee, told Sport24.

"Teams will have to be flexible enough in their training schedules to allow for test results that will vary in its release. Just because you tested the players on a Wednesday doesn't mean you'll have the results back in time for a player to be cleared to train on the Monday."

In fact, as most other industries will concur, it's in all likelihood a hit-and-miss exercise to schedule testing anyway.

"What is the best time to test a player? We've seen how research tells us that incubation isn't an exact science," said Visser.

The challenges of conditioning

Assuming that the initial round of testing is done and dusted, teams will then face the fun of trying to whip players into shape again for a period that, given time constraints, will only last two months.

"There are undoubtedly going to be some teething problems in terms of conditioning," Louis Janse van Rensburg, the Pumas' strength and conditioning coach, told Sport24.

"One of the first headaches that will crop up is how much the players actually lost in terms of strength training during lockdown. Because gyms are closed, the majority of players didn't have easy access to the real heavyweights. 

"We tried to implement a rental system of sorts, where a player could 'book' some weights to take home. But not everyone had the type of accommodation to even do that."

Even the act of attempting running-based exercises has become fraught with challenges and the danger of injury.

"Many players couldn't run during hard lockdown. You weren't allowed outside and properties just don't have sufficient space. We tried to develop 5m programmes for some players, like shuttles," said Janse van Rensburg.

"Once we were given permission to go outside again, you're confronted with different challenges, like making sure a player manages his minutes-on-feet and, for example, making sure the volume of road work they do (like jogging in the street) is sufficient without putting too much stress on the legs that they get something like shin splints."

Forwards, especially props, are particularly vulnerable when it comes to doing road work, given the extra weight that limbs need to absorb on a hard surface.

Yet that doesn't mean returning to a more suitable outdoor environment is suddenly going to mitigate the risk.

"You really have to be careful. A grass field might be softer, but it also has its pitfalls," said Janse van Rensburg.

"If you've been used to running with shoes on harder surfaces, you place a lot of pressure on, for example, the groin region when you start running with boots on grass again, especially when you do turns."

Contact training is not permitted for at least three to four weeks upon the resumption, meaning it's all about social-distanced exercise at the moment.

"Non-contact training will also be phased in," said Janse van Rensburg.

"Essentially, for now, it's small groups of players who are placed in their own lane and run between three to five metres. You'd probably tell them to do a few exercises like 'getting-back-ups' and shuttles, but space is really limited. You can't venture out of your lane.

"These are very interesting times."

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