Super League's strategies to ensure a safe season restart
Watch Super League's restart live on Sky Sports this Sunday. St Helens face Catalans Dragons at 4.15pm, followed by Leeds Rhinos taking on Huddersfield Giants at 6.30pm
By Jon Wells
Last Updated: 30/07/20 2:41pm
Jon Wells looks at the challenges Super League players and coaches are dealing with to ensure a successful season restart.
Biosecurity and Sport
Now there is two words I never thought I would write in the same heading. But this is where we are and as we lead Sunday's restart of Super League, it is worth taking a look at the changes to the working environment for our elite players and coaches and the sacrifices they have made to ensure the season can get back underway.
Ahead of players returning to training at their clubs (as opposed to the individual maintenance training they will have been doing during the period of hiatus) the RFL provided a COVID-19 policy document to all clubs, which mirrors Public Health England advice.
From this document, each club has had to develop their own Designated Sporting Environment (DSE) risk assessment based upon the idiosyncrasies of their own training facilities. In doing so, each club has appointed a COVID officer who oversees the day to day implementation of the various new and onerous hoops through which everyone must jump in order to ensure a safe working environment.
This covers everything from temperature checking at home before leaving for training, designated entry and exit points, manned gates with further temperature checks on arrival, beefed up site security to maintain the player "bubble", assessment areas, signage, PPE, cleaning, sanitising, face masks and all manner of other procedures put in place to mitigate the risk of virus transmission into and within the playing and coaching group.
As anyone who has returned to a gym in the last couple of weeks will testify, the additional responsibilities placed upon you to ensure the safety of everyone slow everything down and can be frustrating at times. This is magnified in an elite sporting environment where players have been used to group training and the sharing of barbells and benches for many years.
On the field, the close friendship bonds of these men are having to be restrained with no shaking of hands and physical greetings and celebrations being reined in in order to minimise any risk. All of this starts to create a clear picture of the sacrifices the players are having to make - sacrifices which sit on top of the financial cuts they have had to agree to in order the clubs they represent can survive the season - and sacrifices which no doubt will add to the mental strain placed upon this group of men.
In a nutshell, all players and coaching staff at all clubs are tested on a weekly basis. They were tested and the results confirmed before they returned as a group; for most, this was in mid-July, for the four teams that open the show on Sunday this took place a month ago.
All are tested currently on a Monday or Tuesday and this has meant there has had to be fallow days crowbarred into an already tight return to play schedule to ensure results give the all-clear before the group at any particular club can continue with their programmed week of training. Tests, I have heard, are not pleasant, involving swabs of the tonsils deep at the back of the throat and then up the nose, and all of this done in a sterile environment with timed arrivals and socially-distanced testing zones.
The layers of biosecurity have been touched upon above have been added to a player's training day. The phrase "readiness to train" includes daily wellness checks, temperature checks for the player's household and constant thought to the balancing of family life and commitments to their profession in this new normal.
Players will now, ever more than before, be expected to alter, amend and otherwise change their routine - often the aspect of the rigours of daily life as an elite athlete that underpins consistency and certainly speaks to their ability to perform at the standard required on a weekly basis - and this will often be without notice and in response to new best-advise for the continued safety of the group in which they operate and the game in general. There is a lot to think about and plenty of engrained habits and cultural norms that have needed to be shelved immediately and completely.
We need to appreciate all of this responsibility has been added to the usual pressures of performing at the highest level (not to mention navigating the new rule changes that will come into effect as we restart the Super League) and biosecurity protocols are not suspended on game day. Indeed, what follows is a short summary of additional protocols that - by the time you switch on Sky Sports on Sunday afternoon - all participating players and support staff will have experienced:
Emerald Headingley Stadium - the host venue for Super League's restart, will be divided into three distinct areas with inner and outer cordons comprising red, amber and green zones. These zones will be clearly demarcated and the monitoring of cross-over between the zones will be hawkish.
The Red Zone, for example, is made up of the changing rooms, medical rooms, referees room, tunnel area, dugouts, field of play, technical area and coaches positions. That's it. The only people allowed in this zone will be those who have complied with testing protocols; and this means confirmation daily wellbeing screening has been completed and verified; the requirement to sign of a declaration of health; and the passing of a temperature check.
Our sport is typified by speed, skill, courage, noise, colour, visceral passion and atmosphere. Yet we play behind closed doors for now. This, and the measures outlined above, mean they will operate in a sterile environment more akin to a hospital wing than a sport stadium and certainly devoid of the febrile, partisan assault on the senses that used to greet - and motivate - players on gameday.
So, when you are watching our first broadcast on Sunday, make sure you pause for a second to reflect on all of these sacrifices and you will realise what an amazing group of talented, hard-working, honest, resilient, adaptable players we have who make up the Super League. I am more in awe of them than ever.