Coping with the pandemic – life inside the bubble of a Super League club

Matthew Shaw spends a day with Huddersfield Giants to learn how Super League clubs are coping with the impact of the Covid pandemic on their training schedules.

In his time in Rugby League, Andy Kelly has undertaken many roles. Player, coach, caretaker, head of youth and rugby manager, just to name a few.

However, he could never have predicted his latest role. Now, he is Huddersfield’s Covid-19 Compliance Manager. Each club has appointed a member of their staff to ensure safety standards are met and the logistics of day-to-day life as a rugby team are compliant during a pandemic.

Prepare for training

It was actually Kelly’s idea to invite me to his club in order to write this piece, even if it caused him all sorts of aggro with the RFL.

He had to undergo extensive dialogue with the RFL, explaining where I would be, when I would be there and who I would be with. Eventually, the governing body listed several protocols that I had to abide by during my stay.

The first included undergoing an Antigen test on Monday, two days before my actual visit.

Booked in for 10am, I was instructed to wait for a text message before driving into the club’s training facility car park. Upon arriving at the ground, several signs indicated which parking spots were free to use.

Everyone must reverse (not my strong point) into a free parking spot to minimise close contact; if everyone reverses, they maintain social distancing.

Not until instructed otherwise am I allowed to leave my car. When I’m given the signal, it’s mask on and straight to the testing station, where a swab is being prepared to get shoved down my throat.

A few seconds of gagging later and it goes straight up the nostrils. I’m assuming some readers have had the ‘pleasure’ of a test by now. If so, perhaps you were fortunate enough to do it yourself. Because let me tell you now, the sensation of cotton scratching the back of your eyes is as unpleasant as it sounds.


Pre-training checks

After a quick conversation, it is straight back to the car and away for the day.

On Tuesday evening my test comes back negative, as confirmed by Kelly as he details the plan for Wednesday.

“Please stay in your car and let me know when you have arrived. Please do not come to the site before 10.00am,” it reads.

I arrived that day at 9:53am. So a detour to the McDonald’s down Leeds Road was required to pass the time. What a shame!

When parked up, Kelly comes out to meet me. But before leaving the car I’m required to fill out a questionnaire asking a variety of questions about how I was feeling and if I had displayed any symptoms. Before every training day, every player must fill out the same questionnaire before being allowed in.

Upon completion, I’m given some PPE equipment for the visit, including an industrial mask, gloves and an apron before being allowed into the training facility.

Entering the bubble

I was now in the team bubble. I suspected that would bring a sense of normality. But how wrong I was.

The Giants’ Training Centre has been overhauled to ensure a safe environment.

What was once a meeting area with a kitchen and changing facilities is now a one-way, military-style operation. Sofas in the communal area are now used as a barricade to enforce the one-way system; the changing rooms are strictly used to gain access to the gym only and the kitchen is completely out of bounds. The showers are now used as storage for equipment that has been used in the past 72 hours.

When you enter the facility, everyone must get a temperature test using a scanning machine. Thankfully, I recorded a 35.7 result.

What was once a place to meet as a team is now an environment for players to get their work done and leave.

All change

It is, at this point, when it starts to become clear how challenging the current climate is for these teams.

Not only is the facility used for training, but it’s also normally used for team meetings and video reviews. Now, that isn’t allowed.

Instead, the Giants are now having team meetings on Zoom. A lot of their video reviews are clipped and put into WhatsApp group chats. The same applies to previewing the upcoming opponents, with separate chats set up to provide different clips to the backs and the forwards.

Even the medical staff are challenged. Their treatment room can now only have two treatment tables, whereas previously they could have five.

Guidance only permits five players to be in the gym at any given time, a logistical nightmare for teams who have field sessions together later in the day as Huddersfield do. A further inconvenience is that players can’t car share whatsoever, which is far from ideal for those travelling across the Pennines.

Groups start to come in at 7:30 and continue until 11.00. For those who have early morning starts, they must then kill time for several hours while adhering to guidance.

Cutting interaction

Huddersfield have their own rules, which dictate that players must remain in a bubble with those they train with and not interact with others. In field sessions, where possible, the same groups do contact drills together too.

As our time at the training centre comes to an end, Kelly is already preparing for, perhaps, the least favourite part of his new role.

Twice a week he is tasked with deep-cleaning the facility. That includes fumigating the entire place and scrubbing the toilets. Never in his wildest dreams did he think his role would ever come to that. However, he believes it is for a greater cause.

“Really, I feel like a custodian of the game now,” he says.

“If I can get things right for the players, and the players can play games, then the game has more chance of surviving.

“As daft as it is, I feel like I’m protecting the game. It’s like the analogy of the woman mopping the floors at NASA. She’s asked what she’s doing and she says ‘I’m sending men to the moon’. It was her contribution, as she saw it, to putting Neil Armstrong on the moon.

“I’m motivated to get it right; sometimes when you’ve got bleach in one hand and a toilet brush in the other, you do think this wasn’t what I signed up for. But we can’t bring cleaners in and we’ve got to make sure things are done.”

Onto the field

Next up is a trip to the field session, which involves a short drive to Lockwood Park.

Again, there are strict instructions. I’m made to park up on one side of the field. The players all have their own car park at the other end of the field. It ensures they are kept away from anyone outside the bubble. A makeshift tent is put up so everyone can, again, get a temperature check.

Before every training session, a plan is sent to the players so they are aware of what they should and should not do.

I’m made to stay more than 20 metres away from the players at all times, as per the instruction of the RFL, as the team goes through some attack and defence.

It’s at this point that Kelly’s work really begins. While the RFL’s track and trace system is known to highlight close contacts in matches, what you perhaps didn’t know is that it also analyses every training session from every club.

Kelly inputs the data. He must observe every training session for what would be perceived as close contact, so that, should a player get the virus, others who could be affected are stood down.

“Every training session is plotted and sent out to players. Before the release is made we look at what the coaches want to do. We work in bubbles of five because the risk factor is one down, all down. Whereas if they do a close-quarter tackle technique it’s one down, five down.

“What we do is look at the session. If there’s no face-to-face contact, no prolonged contact, we see that as a session that would be between green and amber. If it’s real physical stuff, where contact is over three seconds, then that’s a higher risk.

What is allowed

“There are around 18 different depictions of what is and isn’t contact, which we use as a reference point. Then we might take it into a red zone, which is clearly high risk, so if they use a broader group and someone comes back positive, they’re all at risk with track and trace.

“At the end of every day I sit with the statistician that shows GPS contact which is shown on proximity. The players wear them for every session. If we had a positive case, they’d use that information as a gauge. We have what we call an increased risk exposure matrix. After this session that will be filled and sent to the RFL. That’s filled in by me and sent to the RFL. That’s used a cross-reference with the track and trace.

“What we do covers every facet of returning to train. How they arrive, how they dress, where they can access. It’s risk-assessing everything they do while the players are in our environment.”

Naturally, talk turns to how the players are operating away from the club.

The outbreaks at three clubs so far have raised questions of how the players are living on a daily basis.

Players deserve understanding

Recently, several players, including a Huddersfield player James Gavet, were given retrospective bans for breaching protocols issued by the RFL.

“I think there has to be an understanding of what these players are doing to get games on. They’ve made a lot of sacrifices socially and on the day-to-day practices. The days are longer, the rules are strict,” says Kelly.

“I just think it’s important that people understand there are a lot of procedures in place for them to adhere to. And there have been some sanctions. We ask the players to make smart decisions and on the whole, I think they do.

“They’re young and do they get it wrong sometimes? Of course they do, and we’ve seen that, but as they’re growing into the process they’re getting better. From the onset, they’ve moderated their behaviour.

“Even the sanctions we’ve seen, you can be pulled up for using a public pool. Players use that for rehab purposes and to try and enhance their performance. It’s being clamped down on now and they’ll adhere to that.

“But players are now having to fill their own bins up at home to have an ice bath for recovery. They’re amending their behaviour continually and nobody will get it totally right, but it’s a learning process and we’ve got to be mindful of that. But you know what, we’re getting closer to it each week that goes by.

“From the outside it’s a stick to beat us with; but don’t judge the players, they’re professional people doing a good job and trying to work hard to keep playing and to ensure the game isn’t at risk.”

The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.