England's top domestic league is back this weekend with a new title sponsor and new rules to help reduce the risk of Covid-19.
Insurance firm Allianz have come on board as title sponsors in a major boost to the league, which returns this weekend under novel adapted laws introduced to minimise risk in the absence of regular testing for players.
The new rules aim to reduce in game face-to-face contact and come after the RFU say they undertook a detailed risk analysis which demonstrated that compared to the Men’s game there was a higher frequency of scrums, but a lower frequency of high or smother tackles.
The players who have an England fulltime contract will continue to undergo regular testing but the league's restart will hardly be without its risk given the number of amateur players - estimated at around 372 of 400 - as well as students involved and the number of teams who will travel from parts of England where the virus is prevalent in higher numbers.
The Sale Sharks women train in the same facility as that used by the men's team for example, which has just experienced a significant Covid-19 outbreak.
In France, where their top league has been restarted, a quarter of the first four rounds of games in Elite 1 have been called off due to positive tests - Parisian club Bobigny being worst hit with three of their first four games postponed. French players have to isolate and immediately test any player showing any symptoms and to begin with the entire squad was isolated pending test results, but that policy has been relaxed since.
A positive test is then referred to the relevant Regional Health Authority and, depending on that region's policy, anyone in contact with that player is also tested and the club can be asked to suspend all activity.
This happened most recently with Jessy Tremouliere's club Romagnat where a player tested positive after a game against Rennes on 20th September. That resulted in testing for the rest of the squad, resulting in 16 further positive tests on the 22nd. All activity at the club is currently suspended, and last weekend's game was postponed. The club nonetheless hope to play next weekend in what will be the last round of games until after the autumn internationals.
The challenge in France - and what may become a problem in England - is the fixture backlog that these postponements cause. The French have to try to fit all of their planned games in before the end of December when the first phase of the championship is due to end.
The focus for risk reduction in the Allianz Premier 15s is on medical and operational practices including; symptom control, temperature checking, minimum operating standards including risk assessments, enhanced cleaning regimes, high levels of equipment and hand sanitisation and comprehensive medical support.
Transmission risk is also reduced through a prescriptive approach to training practices and an 80% reduction in face-to-face contact as a result of law variations including:
- A play advantage law from a knock-on reducing scrums by over 75%
- Free kicks awarded to the opposition for a forward pass – reducing face-to-face contact by 6%
- Removal of the option for a scrum at a free kick or penalty – reducing face-to-face contact by 7%
- A maul may only have one stop then the ball must be used to reduce the length of the maul
- No players who are not in the start of a lineout can join a maul to reduce the number of players in the maul
- It will only be possible to drive a lineout in 22m to reduce the number of mauls
- Strict social distancing while ball is out of play including set water breaks, named bottles, limited face-to-face warm up
- Game time is reduced to 35 minutes each way to mitigate risk while also recognising the game will be faster with fewer stoppages and thereby supporting player welfar
- The opening nine rounds of the season will be played using the adapted law variations and then reviewed.
In the first round of fixtures, newcomers Exeter Chiefs travel to Gloucester-Hartpury while Sale Sharks' new signing, former England captain and fly-half Katy Daley-Mclean, will face former club Loughborough Lightning.