Richard Cockerill had his own Covid scare this week. On Monday night, his son had a temperature of 38C. The Edinburgh head coach, following strict guidelines, stayed away from training the following day.
“We took him for a test and thankfully that came back negative, so I was back in Wednesday,” he reported.
A positive test would have seen the former England hooker unable to supervise his team’s preparations for their opening match of the new Pro14 season against Ospreys at Murrayfield on Saturday, and possibly their second match away to Munster next Saturday as well.
“I am the head coach and want to be here but not to the detriment of the team,” Cockerill explained. “We all have a responsibility and the rules apply to everybody. Whether you are me or a junior player or a senior international, there are guidelines you have to abide by and if that takes you out for a day, or a week, or two weeks, that is the circumstances.
“We just have to get on with it. That is where we are at. That is society. If we all think ‘the rules don’t apply to me’, we will end up in a place we don’t want to be.”
Cockerill speaks from experience. Edinburgh have already had a dalliance with the new reality.
Two weeks ago, a day before their European Challenge Cup quarter-final in Bordeaux, it was revealed one of their academy players had tested positive for coronavirus, forcing three other academy players – who had attended the same house party – to self-isolate.
Their actions earned a public dressing down from Scotland’s National Clinical Director Jason Leitch, who highlighted their breach of restrictions on social gatherings – and the protocols agreed with Scottish Rugby to allow the sport to resume – in the Scottish Government’s daily briefing.
“There was an internal disciplinary and action has been taken,” Cockerill said on Friday. “It is an internal matter and I can assure you that those players have been dealt with appropriately.
“We have our own guidelines and guidelines from the government, all of which are hard and fast and pretty strict. Some of our players went outside that and have been dealt with. That was a serious matter and still is. If you are going to be in this professional environment, you have to take the rules and regulations very seriously. You don’t want to put anybody at risk.”
By the time Cockerill took his own son for a test, he already had another Covid incident on his hands.
Scotland flanker Jamie Ritchie went into isolation at the beginning of the week after a member of his family had contact with a potential positive case.
The 24-year-old, who has two young children of his own, is unavailable for Saturday’s Ospreys date, but should be able to resume training by the middle of next week, before the trip to face Munster.
Glasgow have a similar scenario this weekend, unable to call on the services of Scotland prop Zander Fagerson and flanker Tom Gordon in order to – get used to hearing this phrase in the coming weeks – “comply with the necessary Scottish Government Covid-19 isolation protocols and to protect the medical integrity of the wider squad”.
“We are being very cautious around where Jamie’s at,” Cockerill said. “Depending on whether it’s a direct contact, or a contact of a contact, affects the length of time you have to isolate. For some people it’s 14 days, for some it’s 10, for some it’s seven.
“Jamie is a good professional; he has not put himself at any risk whatsoever. This is nothing to do with how he has conducted himself. It is purely bad luck.
“The likelihood is that Jamie has nothing wrong with him and the chances of him contracting it are very, very slim but we don’t want to take that risk. We are being very cautious for obvious reasons, otherwise you take out half a dozen players. Of course it is a frustration but within the grand scheme of things with what is happening with Covid, we have to manage it as best we can.”
It really has been a tough week for rugby in Europehttps://t.co/3PkEIoS9h3
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 2, 2020
Cockerill believes such incidents will become a “weekly occurrence” with all sporting teams, a point illustrated by the latest developments at French side Racing 92 and England’s Sale Sharks.
At Edinburgh, testing occurs 48 hours after a game and no contact training such as set-piece work takes place until the results are returned, so no-one is at risk of contact with an infected person.
As well as rugby training, the club have also taken much of the players’ weights regime and physical conditioning work outside. All team meetings are conducted in Murrayfield’s large corporate rooms, with social distancing observed and players wearing face masks. They must also sit two metres apart when they are having lunch together.
“You just have to be very diligent around it because as we’ve seen, one (academy) player has tested positive and thankfully our process and protocols were so strong that that person didn’t take anyone else out,” Cockerill added.
“The key is that as it becomes more the norm, we don’t start to relax our standards. We have to be very careful over what we do in our daily lives and mitigate as much risk as possible.”
Just when everyone was looking forward to a fantastic Super Sunday conclusion to the Premiership… https://t.co/Ddznum0Scn
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 2, 2020
If only Covid was all Cockerill had to worry about. After the opening two rounds of league fixtures, he will lose anything from a dozen to 18 or 20 of his best players to international calls for eight weeks. Some of them might be released back to the club periodically, although four successive Monday night fixtures during November make the logistics of that arrangement more of a lottery.
“It is certainly different, isn’t it?” Cockerill mused as he reflected on the challenges of the forthcoming season, in which only the first eight rounds of Pro14 fixtures have been confirmed.
“With fixture dates, different days, we don’t know what we are going to be doing post-Christmas, there are more internationals than there have ever been, plus a global pandemic… it is going to be a challenging one.
“We have just got to manage it as best we can and react to what is happening and be flexible. There are going to be changes, good and bad, along the way. We just have to get our best team on the field, prepare them as best we can and win as many games as we can.”
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