- Tougher measures introduced to tackle mounting cases
- Saints outbreak forces postponement of east Midlands derby
Premiership players have been banned from celebrating tries “face to face” as part of a series of stricter Covid-19 protocols introduced amid the rising number of cancelled matches with persistent offenders facing disciplinary action from the Rugby Football Union.
Players are also forbidden from taking ice baths and meetings must take place outdoors or virtually with PRL and the RFU clamping down after Northampton’s match against Leicester on Saturday became the fifth match in just over two weeks to be cancelled.
The Guardian understands a twice-a-week testing programme is also under strong consideration amid the sharp rise in Covid-19 cases in England. Premiership Rugby will announce this week’s test results on Thursday but already this is the third consecutive round to feature cancellations and fears are growing over the integrity of the competition.
A similar warning was issued over try celebrations before last season’s restart in August and while it was effectively ignored, it is understood the RFU has since created a role specifically designed to ensure compliance with protocols and will consider action against anyone consistently flouting them.
Other measures designed to keep clubs Covid safe include players being banned from eating at their training bases or stadiums, and non-playing squad members can no longer attend matches. Also warm-ups will be filmed to help identify close contacts should an outbreak take place.
Asked if he believed the protocols needed to be strengthened, the Exeter director of rugby, Rob Baxter, said: “The problem is while the rugby club is probably the safest place there is, you can’t allow for what happens outside. It’s impossible for me to say that a strengthening of the rules within the club environment would stop more Covid outbreaks because none of us are in complete control of what we do outside the club.
“A revitalisation and focus on everything around professional sport is good but for me to say changing the rules will make an improvement, I don’t think anyone can say that because we just don’t know.”
Northampton confirmed their match against Leicester was the latest to be cancelled on Wednesday after a number of positive cases led to more players having to self-isolate.
Northampton are set to be awarded two match points and Leicester four, which means the Saints have now been awarded six points from two matches that have not taken place after last week’s trip to London Irish was scratched.
Amid concerns that so many cancelled matches are skewing the Premiership table, there are growing calls among the clubs to do away with relegation this season.
“We are incredibly disappointed and frustrated that we are unable to proceed with such an important fixture for the club,” the Northampton director of rugby, Chris Boyd, said. “It’s also a big blow to have back-to-back matches cancelled, as we had hoped to pick up some momentum again following an important win on Boxing Day.
“The club has been absolutely rigorous in how we have followed the protocols laid out for us. We are following the advice we have been given, which was not to play the game and to close our training facility until next week.”
Baxter also revealed that Exeter had an undisclosed number of positive cases this week but he remains confident Saturday’s top-of-the-table clash with Bristol will go ahead, with the Chiefs taking it upon themselves to introduce another round of testing this week.
Baxter has previously told of the benefits of twice-weekly testing and at the behest of the Top 14 clubs, Premiership clubs are set to do so in European weeks, starting with the forthcoming double header later this month. It is understood that what happens beyond that remains under discussion.
“We’re certainly going to have another round of testing later this week just to ensure that nobody’s slipped through the net, nobody’s become viral later in the week,” added Baxter. ”That will just ensure that when we take the field we can go with that 100% confidence, we’re not risking transmitting anything to Bristol.”