Premier 15s: Nicky Ponsford confident on Covid risk reduction plans

England Rugby will not introduce mandatory testing for Premier 15s players despite postponing Wasps’ first game of the season against Bristol following a positive test for coronavirus.

After admitting that more fixtures will inevitably have to be cancelled as the season goes on, RFU head of women’s performance Nicky Ponsford told the media: “We’re really confident with the system we have in place.”

Shortly after unveiling a new sponsor for the fledging women’s league this week, news came that Saturday’s Bristol versus Wasps match was off.

This weekend's Allianz Premier 15s match between @BristolBearsW and @Waspsladies has been postponed until Saturday 31 October.

The decision has been made after one Bristol player tested positive for Covid-19.

More details ↪️ https://t.co/XKlTB4nd70 pic.twitter.com/dXpGKXkI67

Just one Bristol player had tested positive, but it was determined that 19 of her team-mates and two members of staff had come into close contact at training and they are all now self-isolating.

With so many players unavailable, Bristol could not fulfil the fixture. The game has been rescheduled for October 31.

In an effort to reduce face-to-face contact and thereby mitigate risk, law changes have been introduced to the Premier 15s. But will these variations make any real difference in what is effectively still a full-contact sport? Could there be more, not fewer, positive cases when the competition restarts this weekend?

“We’re confident we have reduced the risk,” Ponsford said. “Yes, there will be some face-to-face contact, there may be contacts in a game that could lead to transmission – but we think that has massively been reduced by the way we’ve changed the laws.

We don’t anticipate we’ll get to a place where we won’t have any fixtures on at all…we’re really confident with the system we’ve got in place.

Nicky Ponsford

“We will lose some games…but as we get better at determining who those close contacts are, and clubs get better at running their sessions – we don’t anticipate we’ll get to a place where we won’t have any fixtures on at all…we’re really confident with the system we’ve got in place.”

So what are the barriers to introducing weekly testing for Premier 15s players like the men had in place for the Gallagher Premiership restart? Ponsford says the cost and logistics of regularly testing so many amateur women rugby players make that impossible…

“A large majority are not professional or even semi-professional so they’re not in a position to even get to their clubs outside of training…and we have to recognise how much that would have cost in an environment where there isn’t a lot of money floating around to be able to play for it.”

The RFU is facing huge losses of revenue of over £100m due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the effect on women’s rugby has already cut deep.

With a World Cup in New Zealand to prepare for next year, the Red Roses team has avoided a reduction in funding, but financial support to all 10 sides in the Premier 15s has been cut by 25 per cent. The women’s and men’s England Sevens programme have been scrapped altogether.

But not all players in the Premier 15s will go without any testing. Adhering to Six Nations protocols, anyone attending England’s Red Roses training camp will be screened for coronavirus.

“Because the England players are going from their club environments into an England environment…they’re breaking their club bubbles,” Ponsford said. “We need to try and mitigate risk as much as possible.”

After completing their rescheduled Six Nations match against Italy at the end of this month, the Red Roses will then prepare for home and away internationals against France. They play Les Bleus in France on November 14 and then again at Twickenham seven days later.

“In order to get back and not have to isolate for 14 days, we need to make sure that we have a testing programme that allows us to come back in and, and then essentially be able to play the game,” Ponsford added.

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