The Premiership is unlikely to return until late July at the earliest following a study – co-authored by the Rugby Football Union’s chief doctor – which finds that players will need six weeks of training before matches can begin.
The study, written by a group of leading medics including the RFU’s Simon Kemp, also warns of the increased risk of both injury and anxiety among players when returning to training and competitive matches.
Premiership clubs have still not returned to any form of training despite being given approval from the government to do so. It was hoped a meeting of key stakeholders on Thursday would provide more clarity but a date for returning to training is now not expected until next week. Different clubs have varying views on how many weeks of training will be required before matches can begin with a number believing four will be sufficient. The study published on Friday is likely to lead to a further delay, however.
“A period of around six weeks of preparation is likely to be sufficient for most athletes to return to being competition ready,” reads the study. “Although this will ultimately depend on the length of governmental social distancing policies, which differ by country.”
Premiership Rugby still hopes to complete its entire season – nine remaining rounds as well as the play-offs – but increasing that is looking unlikely. Indeed, the Northampton chairman, John White, admitted that it may end up being the case that only play-offs take place, based on current league positions. He said: “As time rolls on, we may not get nine rounds in – it may go down to just play-offs eventually But there is a determination to see the season out so I think we will do that.”
The fact that Kemp co-authored the new study is significant because he is responsible for drawing up a list of stringent protocols that clubs must adhere to before returning to training. The present hold-up is in the main because of concerns over testing but the study raises additional issues of the dangers of players suffering injuries after a lengthy lay-off. Drawing on comparisons with the NFL, which was shut down for 20 weeks in 2011 and saw a significant increase in achilles injuries upon returning, the study also warns that the length of the lockdown could lead to more injuries next season.
“A key concern arising from a period of enforced modified training due to Covid-19 is that athletes cannot maintain physical qualities that likely protect against injury,” continues the study. “A 20-week shutdown of the National Football League in 2011 was associated with a four-fold increase in achilles tendon ruptures in the first 29 days of a condensed return to competition period. Over the subsequent season, soft tissue injuries were higher than preceding or subsequent seasons.
“In professional rugby union, even after a short off-season typically lasting four-to-five weeks during which athletes have opportunities to train , there is a greater frequency and burden of training injuries in the early, compared with later, period of pre-season. This highlights one of the challenges when athletes return following an extended period of enforced modified training.”