Academy, Scholarship and Women programmes plan for return

Leeds Rhinos Academy vs Newcastle Thunder Academy at Kingston Park Stadium, Newcastle.

Since March last year, the Academy, Scholarship and Women’s programmes have been disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The programmes temporarily returned in November and then again in January, but each time due to the high number of COVID-19 cases in the community, were postponed. The return on the 8th March will hopefully see the programmes back in action and playing again soon.

All programmes will follow similar guidelines to the first team, which will include the monitoring of COVID-19 symptoms and lateral flow testing prior to training. Training sessions will be monitored for close contacts to ensure that if a player does test positive, the staff know which players need to isolate.

The club have experience managing COVID-19 protocols with the first team, which they have been doing since the return in July. COVID officer Sue Ward, and COVID Medical Officer Dr Marwan Al-Dawoud have led the implementation of COVID protocols, which also involved managing the recent outbreak, which resulted in the club shutting for 10 days.

Ben Jones, Pathway Performance Director at Leeds Rhinos, Head of Performance at the RFL and Professor at Leeds Beckett University has also been heavily involved during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has worked closely with Dr Gemma Phillips, who is the RFL COVID Medical Officer, to undertake scientific studies to help understand COVID-19 in sport. 

Working with collaborators from other sports around the world, Ben was part of the team that published a review in the International Journal of Sports Medicine on how contact sports should prepare for matches following the first COVID-19 lockdown. Ben then worked with other leading experts, to develop the Team Sport Risk Exposure Framework which was adopted by the UK Government, and other sport in this country and internationally as a way of quantifying the transmission risk within sport and how to identify contacts.

Working with the RFL, RFU and Scottish Rugby, Ben has led research looking into how COVID-19 in the community impacts the number of positive cases in rugby, which shows a positive association between community and rugby COVID-19 cases. The first team experienced their COVID-19 outbreak during the peak of positive cases in the community, which was similar to what other sports were seeing. Ben has also worked with colleague from Leeds Beckett University to apply behaviour change frameworks, to support players adopting to the new norm during COVID-19.

Most recently, Ben led a study which was recently published in British Journal of Sports Medicine evaluating the transmission risk of COVID-19 during rugby league matches, which was the first study in any sport to be published in this area. The study found that the transmission risk of COVID-19 was lower during matches than first thought, which was explained by the outdoor nature of matches, therefore good ventilation.

Collectively, the research provides a positive outlook for rugby league, as it plans its return. Commenting on the return of the programmes, Ben said ‘The COVID pandemic has been challenging for everyone, including those in rugby league. Because our programmes have not been running for almost a year, we have a lot of staff and players who have not been able to come in and do what they love. Likewise, the staff and players that have been in, have been working incredible hard to do things that before we would have taken for granted. Everything has to go through thorough risk assessments and mitigations.’

‘The outlook does look positive. COVID-19 cases in the community continue to drop, and we showed from some of our research that these are related to the number of positive cases we see in rugby clubs. Clubs should expect to see fewer positive cases each week now. We are all aware the SARS-CoV-2 virus is highly transmissible, therefore everyone has to remain cautious. We know the virus is more transmissible indoors than outdoors, so we will be looking to do most of our training outside when we return. We will still ensure we follow the strict COVID protocols, because as the lockdown eases there is a chance community numbers may increase again, and it’s important we keep everyone safe.’

‘The important thing for the club, is that we get the players and staff back in and allow them to train and play in a safe environment.’