1st August 2020, 09:50 | therfl
The 2020 Betfred Super League restarts this weekend; however, the planning for the resumption of professional Rugby League started as soon as the sport was shut down in March - and equivalent work continues around the best way in which the community game can safely resume.
It has been a genuine team effort, with all across the sport contributing. For the benefit of supporters interested in how it’s happened, we’ve pulled together some details below.
The initial focus was considering competition structures; appropriate amendments to the regulatory framework and providing guidance to clubs on the impact of the shutdown and available support (including Government schemes). The three key drivers throughout have been player welfare, competition integrity and financial sustainability across the sport.
In April the Government issued its 5-stage model for the return of elite sports - detailed guidance has subsequently been issued for each of the Stages. This Guidance (which is generic for all sports) has formed the backbone of the policies and protocol that have now been developed specifically for Rugby League. All of the policies have been risk and medically led.
From a medical perspective, the RFL has worked closely with the Sport’s Clinical Advisory Group (a cross sport group of medical practitioners) who have provided advice and recommendations on a range of matters. In turn Dr Gemma Phillips, the RFL’s Covid Medical Lead, has been part of a cross-sport group of medical leads ensuring that RL policies are aligned with best practice.
The consideration and mitigation of risk is implicit in all of the work done. This is perhaps most visibly seen in the changes to the Laws to remove scrums for the remainder of the 2020 Season: a recommendation made by the Laws Committee and approved by the RFL Board, on the basis of the amount of face to face close contact in a scrum.
The RFL and Super League Europe have also worked closely with all stakeholders in relation to the development and delivery of policies including clubs, broadcasters and the players’ union.
Fixtures Working Group
SLE and the clubs led on the process of devising a rescheduled fixture list, taking into account the need to build in flexibility for matches behind closed doors and for the possible return of crowds, and also to take into account the needs of the broadcasters – Sky for the Super League, and BBC for the Challenge Cup.
Return to Training
The overriding aim of the RFL’s Return to Train Policy is to ensure a safe biosecure environment for all players and other individuals involved in training. Flowing from this aim, the key tenets of the Policy are: sanitised training environments (exclusively used during training sessions by the relevant team); risk assessments of all involved; participation being on the basis of opt in; daily health assessment forms for essential staff and their families; temperature screening prior to entry to training venues; risk assessment of training and balancing essential training where social distancing needs to be temporarily breached with maintaining social distancing at all other times; and weekly antigen testing.
The requirement for weekly antigen testing is based on a recommendation from the Clinical Advisory Group based on best practice across sports. The need for testing will continue to be kept under review including against infection rates in the country and within our player pool and against the other mitigating steps taken.
We are massively aware of the impact any positive tests within the game may have on the successful resumption of the season. We are working closely with clubs and the players union to ensure all involved buy-in to the importance of this.
To support, the RFL has developed an on-line education module that has to be completed by all individuals involved in the return. A range of remote training sessions have also been delivered to different groups.
Return to Playing – Behind Closed Doors
The Government’s staged model provides for a return to Behind Closed Doors sport ahead of any return of crowds. This is crucial for all sports, including Rugby League, to allow the fulfilment of broadcast commitments.
Building on the Government Guidance, the RFL has developed a Behind Closed Doors Protocol. The key aim of the Protocol is to ensure social distancing or, where this is not possible, mitigate any risk.
Given the number of different stakeholders involved in the playing of Behind Closed Doors matches, a working group has been established to implement the Protocols and to seek to ensure a successful restart. Chaired by Karen Moorhouse of the RFL, it includes representatives from the RFL Operations and Events Teams, Match Officials, Super League Europe, Sky, the BBC, the venues at which matches will be played in the first instance, and a Ground Safety Officer.
Each Venue will be divided into Zones with only players and other essential staff subject to the testing regime having access to the ‘inner sanctum’ – the Red Zone. Other user groups will have access to the Amber Zone. To be permitted entry to a Behind Closed Doors event, all individuals have to complete an RFL education module in advance. They must also complete a wellbeing check on the day of the match, and have their temperature checked prior to entry to Venue, while committing to observing the necessary social distancing requirements (with obvious exceptions for the players and other on-field personnel, such as match officials).
Given the significant work involved in preparing a Venue to stage a BCD Match it was agreed that in the first instance only a limited number of venues will be used.
Once these venues had been determined – starting with Emerald Headingley for the first two weekends – there was a need to ensure these facilities were suitable for biosecure, socially-distanced events involving more than one fixture. SLE, the RFL and the venues have worked closely together on ensuring suitable dressing room facilities, a reshaped match-day schedule, and with Sky on the provision of broadcasting gantries and facilities, in addition to provision for other parts of the media.
The BCD Protocol also incorporates the requirements of Stage 4 of the Government Guidance (Cross Border Behind Closed Doors Matches) – as in the opening double header this weekend, which includes Catalans Dragons playing St Helens at Emerald Headingley. This extends the principle of ensuring a biosecure environment to travel between France and the UK. Flowing from this, it is envisaged that travel between the countries will be by dedicated charter plane.
Return to Playing – Return of Crowds
The Government has now issued draft Stage 5 Guidance for the return of spectators and it is envisaged that crowds will return from the start of October. The RFL is drafting a Protocol for this which will be supplemental to the Return to Train Policy and Behind Closed Doors Protocol.
In the meantime, Clubs are working with their licensing authorities in relation to revised ground capacities and reviewing their operating practices. A key part of this will be in relation to the collection of spectator data (to link with the NHS Test and Trace programme) and the provision of information to spectators around the matchday experience.
The position in France is different with the return of crowds already permitted: we are working with Catalans on the interaction of the French regulatory framework and the RFL Protocols.
Track and Trace
To appropriately seek to limit the impact of any positive tests or symptomatic cases, a Track and Trace model has been developed (led by Dr Gemma Phillips and Professor Ben Jones, the Head of Performance for the RFL’s England Performance Unit). The model identifies which individuals would be deemed to be close contacts and required to isolate, in the event of a positive test on a player involved in a game. This is based on detailed modelling of contact within the Game and will be determined based on training logs submitted by Clubs after training and, where relevant, an analysis of each tackle within a Match.
Throughout the period of lockdown, the RFL has liaised with Clubs regarding appropriate amendments to the Operational Rules. Some key amendments include the suspension of the rule that any change to the 21-player squad leads to the loss of an interchange and the adjustment of the End of Season Signing Deadline to Friday September 25.
Following the announcement by Government on the 9th July that recreational team sports could resume the RFL has submitted its Return to Play Action Plan and Community Game Guidance. The Action Plan is a requirement of the Government’s Standard Framework For Recreational Sport – Return to Play, which outlines the parameters under which sports can safely resume.
As soon as the Action Plan is approved full details of the phased return to community rugby league will be released.
The work involved in the resumption of the sport has been detailed and multi-faceted - from securing a £16m loan from Government, to the suspension of scrums. It has involved all stakeholders working closely together. Throughout the key drivers have remained player welfare, competition integrity and financial sustainability. As with the wider landscape relating to Covid-19, the position will evolve; however, we are confident that the sport is well placed to respond and adapt.