Sport tee­ter­ing on the brink as Covid cases rise with threat of sec­ond wave

Sal­ford Red Devils and Hull FC have their games called off Doubts over re­sump­tion of Women’s Cham­pi­ons League

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Tom Mor­gan, Katie Why­att and Ross Hep­pen­stall

Pro­fes­sional sport was warned it is on a knife-edge again after Covid-19 out­breaks in rugby league and women’s foot­ball fu­elled fears that a host of com­pe­ti­tions may be forced back into lock­down.

As ev­i­dence mounts of a sec­ond wave across Europe, the re­cently re­turned rugby Su­per League was plunged into tur­moil after Hull FC and Sal­ford Red Devils were told their matches had been post­poned due to six pos­i­tive tests after they played each other.

Rugby Foot­ball League of­fi­cials, who bor­rowed £16mil­lion from the Gov­ern­ment to help re­sume the sport, were last night scram­bling to con­tain a cri­sis which sets off alarm bells for their rugby union coun­ter­parts when the Gal­lagher Premier­ship re­sumes to­mor­row. In the last round of test­ing for the Premier­ship, four tested pos­i­tive, in­clud­ing one player.

In foot­ball, prepa­ra­tions for the re­sump­tion of the Women’s Cham­pi­ons League were en­gulfed by un­cer­tainty after a fresh round of test­ing showed five Atletico Madrid play­ers had tested pos­i­tive.

Uefa was said to be closely mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion for the tour­na­ment in Spain, which is fac­ing the worst coron­avirus in­fec­tion rate in Western Europe – 1,418 in its lat­est daily count. The UK is not far be­hind, how­ever, record­ing more than 1,000 cases in a day for the third time in the past week.

Matches are sched­uled to re­sume in Bil­bao and San Se­bas­tian next Fri­day, de­spite ex­perts ex­press­ing con­cern that Spain was at a “crit­i­cal mo­ment” after La Liga men’s clubs en­dured their big­gest surge since the peak of the pan­demic. Barcelona said an un­named squad mem­ber tested pos­i­tive yes­ter­day after it emerged there had been six cases at Ath­letic Bil­bao, two at Va­len­cia and two at Atletico Madrid.

The new cases come a day after Ni­cola Stur­geon, Scot­land’s First Min­is­ter, warned that foot­ball matches could be shut down after Celtic and Aberdeen play­ers breached rules that have led to both hav­ing two games called off.

Prof John Ash­ton, the for­mer direc­tor of pub­lic health for the North West, says he ex­pects more cases in sport like Celtic de­fender Boli Bolin­goli, who re­turned to his club within 24 hours of fly­ing back from Spain without self-iso­lat­ing, and the eight Aberdeen play­ers who vis­ited a bar to­gether.

“The biose­cu­rity bub­bles that we see in sport are only as strong as the weak­est link,” he said. “No mat­ter how ro­bust, the ar­range­ments are put in place by the sport­ing bod­ies, and the clubs them­selves. It’s al­ways go­ing to be vul­ner­a­ble to core be­hav­iour by the play­ers who are prob­a­bly not so dif­fer­ent from the com­mu­ni­ties that they’re drawn from.”

Ash­ton ex­pressed con­cern over the fate of a host of do­mes­tic sports. Out­side the mega-rich bub­ble of the Pre­mier League, he said lesser­funded com­pe­ti­tions will be par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to re­gional lock­downs as have al­ready been seen in Manch­ester, Pre­ston, Aberdeen, Kirklees and Brad­ford.

“I’m an­tic­i­pat­ing there’s go­ing to be a lot more of this virus around and that will ob­vi­ously af­fect sport,” he said. “This isn’t a ques­tion of a sec­ond wave as the first wave’s not go­ing away in this coun­try. We will see more very lo­cal lock­downs and that will in­evitably dis­rupt play.”

The Pre­mier League has man­aged to avoid any fresh post­pone­ments un­der its £4mil­lion test­ing regime, prompt­ing calls for the Su­per League to dou­ble its screen­ing sched­ule to twice a week.

The Su­per League had restarted on Aug 2, shortly after Toronto Wolf­pack with­drew due to a fi­nan­cial cri­sis, but matches in­volv­ing Hull and Sal­ford Red Devils, sched­uled for this week­end, have been post­poned.

Min­is­ters face a race to en­sure enough test­ing is car­ried out at sta­di­ums ahead of a pro­posed Oct 1 re­turn for crowds after pi­lot schemes were can­celled at the snooker, cricket and horse rac­ing a fort­night ago. A gov­ern­ment up­date is ex­pected this week.

Tough: Sal­ford Red Devils (in red) and Hull FC played each other on Sun­day, and have had fix­tures post­poned after a num­ber of pos­i­tive tests

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