Leinster rugby will begin training at their High-Performance Centre (HPC) on University College Dublin’s (UCD’s) Bellfield campus on Monday, after players had undergone testing earlier this week. As part of the return to play protocols set out by the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), the HPC at UCD has been outfitted with the required infrastructure to facilitate a safe return to training, for restricted training sessions.

Leinster and Munster will begin training again at their respective HPCs on Monday 22 June, with Connacht and Ulster returning to training a week later on Monday 29 June. The National Men’s and Women’s Sevens squads are due back in training from Monday 6 July.

Leinster’s return to UCD will be managed by the IRFU and Leinster directly. Leinster’s Senior Communications & Media Manager, Marcus Ó Buachalla confirmed to the College Tribune that, “Leinster Rugby is solely responsible for the training environment in UCD and in the Ken Wall Centre of Excellence.”

“The Return to Rugby plans have been discussed at length with all stakeholders including the IRFU, UCD and our health and safety partners ahead of Monday’s return. There are detailed protocols in place regarding all elements of the return and these have been outlined by the IRFU’s Dr. Rod McLoughlin and these protocols will be followed to the letter in each of the High-Performance Centres.”

In a statement from the IRFU, Medical Director McLoughlin has explained the precautions and steps that various HPCs across the country, including at UCD, have had to go through before training can resume on Monday. “This has been a very busy operational phase for us as we prepare the HPC facilities for the players to return but also prepare the players for their return,” said McLoughlin.

“That involves educating them, screening them and making sure they understand why we need to implement all the processes and protocols. For example, we’ve had to introduce well over 20 new medical protocols around our normal daily activities within the HPC facilities.”

From Monday, training sessions at UCD and in Limerick will be restricted to seven players per session, with a single coach per session. The players in each session will remain together for the entire week, unable to switch to a different training group, thus limiting the contact between players and coaches. There will also be strict hygiene measures in place for sanitising gym equipment that cannot be separated to individual groups.

In the second week of training, two groups will be amalgamated together, making a number of groups of 14 players, with two coaches coaching each group.

All Leinster players have gone through Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing, which began on Wednesday. These PCR tests, which are being used by the League of Ireland, Premier League, English Football League, Bundesliga, La Liga, New Zealand Rugby and National Rugby League, will return results on whether or not a player has contracted Covid-19 within two to four days.

Additionally, players have been attending online, educational webinars “about COVID-19, how it’s transmitted and the signs and symptoms they should be aware of,” according to McLoughlin. “The second part of that online module will be specific to the HPC they’re going into, so it’ll outline what will happen when they arrive and what is expected of them.”

Finally, before each player is permitted to enter their respective HPC, they will have to complete a questionnaire about their possible exposure to Covid-19, and have their temperature checked at check-in. Each player must travel alone and arrive in their full training kit.

According to the statement released by the IRFU, “If, for some reason, the questionnaire raises a concern, this alerts the medical staff to a symptom suggestive of COVID-19 or the player’s temperature is above 37.5°C, a decision will be taken on the next course of action for that player.”

“What we’re doing is trying to minimise the risk as much as we can,” said McLoughlin. “We can’t remove 100% of the risk but everything we’re doing is designed to ensure the players and our staff can return to work safely. They will arrive, train and go home.”

No player is obligated to return to training. Any player with concerns over Covid-19 and returning to training will have their concerns discussed individually.

“Players or support staff, like anyone in the community, could experience COVID-19 after they return to training, and we have contingencies to deal with that.” Said McLoughlin. “It’s one of the reason we’re going back in small pods, so that if that situation arises, that individual has been in contact with as few people as possible.”

“What we’re trying to do is, in the first instance, is lower the risk of it happening and then training in such a way that if it happens, their close contacts are a very limited number and only those people who have been in contact with them will have to isolate.”

The senior provincial squads will be back in action when the Guinness Pro14 returns behind closed doors for derby matches on 22 August.

Stephen Kisbey-Green – Co-Editor