The potential complications of the pandemic on the new Guinness Pro14 season have become apparent immediately in the first week with three Scotland squad players having to stand down from Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby’s games this weekend.
Edinburgh’s Jamie Ritchie, Scotland’s player of the 2019-20 season, and Gregor Townsend’s first choice tight-head prop Zander Fagerson have been withdrawn from consideration, along with the uncapped Glasgow flanker Tom Gordon due to Covid-19 protocols.
None of the players has tested positive themselves and have no symptoms, but all have had indirect contact with persons undergoing testing and potentially at risk of having the virus, requiring them to go into isolation.
Fagerson and Gordon have to isolate for 14 days while Ritchie should be available to train again in the middle of next week, but this disruption – likely to be repeated throughout the season as the second wave of the pandemic continues – underlines the complex nature of the season to come for all rugby.
Glasgow’s head coach Danny Wilson said that he expected this to happen “more and more, unfortunately”.
“Hopefully we can reduce the risk as much as possible, but the risk is always going to be there,” he said. “While the numbers have grown quite considerably in Glasgow we’re probably substantially at risk when so many of the boys live in the city.”
Glasgow have already suffered a last minute disruption when Richie Gray pulled out of the second Edinburgh game a few hours before kick-off because of an indirect contact with a suspected infection. The lock didn’t contract the virus, and is in the squad for this week’s game at Connacht, but it’s an illustration of how quickly the situation can develop.
“You have to adjust to these late scenarios the best you can,” added Wilson. “For example when the international period kicks off, if Scotland have any of these kind of problems you’ve certainly got to have a Plan B up your sleeve.
“You’re going to have most teams with their normal 15-20 per cent injury rate and the Covid responses on top of that.
‘You need to be ready for that because they can come very, very quickly as we’ve already experienced. Things can change literally overnight, that’s part of the challenge for us and everyone else.”
Richard Cockerill at Edinburgh has already had to discipline four academy players for breaching the protocols, but in Ritchie’s case this is a potential contact in his wider family.
“Jamie has been completely professional,” he said. “The likelihood is he has nothing wrong with him and the chances of him contracting the virus are very, very slim and but we don’t want to take that risk.
“We are being very cautious for obvious reasons, otherwise you can take out half a dozen players.”
Edinburgh’s existing protocols held up well around the one academy player who did test positive – after attending a house party – as that infection didn’t spread.
“You don’t want to put anyone at risk,” continued Cockerill. “For example on Monday night my son had a temperature of 38 so i was not at training on Tuesday. We took him for a test and thankfully it came back negative so I was back in Wednesday.
“We all have a responsibility and the rules apply to everybody, whether it is me or a junior player or a senior international.”
Edinburgh host Ospreys at Murrayfield on Saturday night and it figures to be Cockerill’s most challenging season with the many complications ahead.
“It’s certainly different, isn’t it?” he said. “With fixture difference in terms of the days we play, we don’t really know what we are going to be doing post-Christmas, more internationals than there have ever been, a global pandemic – yeah, it is going to be a challenging one.
“But we’ve got to just manage it the best we can, react as it is happening and be flexible.
“All we can do is get the best team on the field, prepare them as well as we can, and go out to win as many games as we can.”
Edinburgh will also be without Blair Kinghorn (shoulder), Rory Sutherland (back spasms) and Duhan van der Merwe (calf) for Saturday’s game.
Edinburgh team (vs Ospreys, Guinness PRO14, Murrayfield ko 7.35pm, live on Premier Sports 1)
Damien Hoyland; Darcy Graham, Mark Bennett, Chris Dean, Jamie Farndale; Jaco van der Walt, Charlie Shiel; Pierre Schoeman, Stuart McInally (capt), Simon Berghan; Grant Gilchrist, Ben Toolis; Magnus Bradbury, Luke Crosbie, Nick Haining.
Replacements: David Cherry, Jamie Bhatti, WP Nel, Andrew Davidson, Hamish Watson, Dan Nutton, Nathan Chamberlain, George Taylor.
Glasgow team (vs Connacht, Showgrounds, Galway ko 5.15pm)
Huw Jones; Tommy Seymour, Nick Grigg, Stafford McDowall, Robbie Nairn; Adam Hastings, Ali Price; Oli Kebble, Fraser Brown, D’Arcy Rae; Rob Harley, Scott Cummings; Ryan Wilson, Chris Fusaro, Matt Fagerson.
Replacements: George Turner, Aki Seiuli, Enrique Pieretto, Richie Gray, Fotu Lokotui, George Horne, Pete Horne, Ratu Tagive.