Grass-roots return looms
RFU developing version of the sport for grass-roots return Early August target date for adapted non-contact format
Community clubs could receive the all-clear to return to play early next month. The Rugby Football Union is expected to complete Covid-19 exposure-risk analysis this week as a final step to gaining government approval.
Community clubs could be given the all-clear to return to play early next month. The Rugby Football Union is due to complete Covid-19 exposure risk analysis this week as a final step to government approval.
The RFU has been developing an adapted non-contact version of the game which it hopes to demonstrate will meet the criteria for the return of recreational team sport that was published last week.
Video analysis of footage from a variety of forms of the sport, from 15-a-side, sevens, XRugby and touch, including action from clubs in the Isle of Man and Channel Islands where contact rugby has been allowed to resume, is being analysed by the RFU’s medical department to examine the risk of exposure to players.
And while a return to full-contact 15-a-side rugby is not expected for several months, the RFU is determined to give clubs the option of rugby activity beyond what is currently allowed.
“We are doing exposure risk analysis and hope to have that complete by the end of this week,” Steve Grainger, the RFU’s rugby development director, said. “The analysis is looking at where there are sustained periods of face-to-face contact. Ultimately it has got to be scientifically credible because the body that has to approve it is Public Health England and the Departure of Culture, Media and Sport, so they want to be satisfied we have done what we can to analyse that effectively. We are optimistic that probably a ‘two-touch’ variant of the game will enable us to put something out there.”
Developed by RFU staff and an internal working group, the adapted game has its origins in a training activity in which each team is given eight phases, each consisting of two “touch tackles” to score a try. Following the first touch tackle, the attacker can run, pass or kick (below head height). After the second tackle, the attacker must stop, throw the ball up, catch and pass to a supporting team-mate, while the defence has to get onside. Providing the attacking team do not make a mistake, they can have up to eight phases to score.
The RFU says the format is driven by decision-making, encourages players to go forward, support others, create continuity and apply pressure – all key components of the game which will prepare players for the return of full-contact 15-a-side rugby. Grass-roots clubs are currently restricted to sociallydistanced training in groups of six.
“We want something in the short term, hopefully from early August when clubs would normally be getting back to some element of preseason, that would allow us to expand that bubble beyond six players and allows them to be closer than one-metre plus,” Grainger added. “Getting something that enables larger groups to do something that isn’t just strength and conditioning training and that feels like it is a positive move forward.”
Grainger said that other adapted versions of the game, including a 15-a-side format without scrummaging, rucking and mauling, and reduced height tackling, were also being considered. However, he insisted they were not designed for use in leagues, and clubs would not be forced to embrace any adapted versions – admitting that some were not interested until 15-a-side full-contact rugby is able to return. “The question is, what is going to happen if we can’t do that until November or January?” added Grainger. “That is where we have to be driven by the clubs.
“We are in constant communication with a lot of clubs and the jury is divided. Some definitely want some sort of adapted activity as soon as possible because they need to drive revenue back into their clubs and want the players to return. Others are not interested until there is a return to ‘real rugby’.
“We have started discussions with some clubs to consider at what point they think they might want something that is an adapted variant of the 15-a-side game. The most obvious area is the scrum, ruck, maul, face-to-face front-on tackle.
“Encouragingly, a lot of clubs who have started training are reporting high numbers, with close to 50 when they might usually have had around 20. But are they going to hang in there for another couple of months just in socially-distanced bubbles of six doing strength and conditioning work? They are going to want to get into some sort of ‘invasion’ game situation. Our responsibility is to ensure there is a rugby on offer, but we are definitely not going to impose a different model or format on any clubs.”
Grainger said the same approach would apply to age-grade rugby.
“A concept that can work all the way through the system is going to be much easier,” he added.
“The guidance seems to be that any contact sport won’t happen in schools in September, but if we have an alternative to something that gets a rugby ball out there and groups engaging in an ‘invasion’ game with that rugby ball, then it keeps it alive.”