With the global COVID-19 pandemic gripping the UK , we are all adapting to a new way of life and professional sport is no different.
The Guinness PRO14 season has been suspended until further notice and the vast majority of sports teams are now operating with streamlined programmes.
At Cardiff Blues, the decision was taken last Thursday to send the playing squad away from the Arms Park to follow individually-tailored programmes, while on Monday morning all but a small skeleton staff switched to a work from home policy.
On the rugby side with no team training sessions, games to prepare for, or performances to analyse, it is certainly very different.
The playing squad are following their own programmes off-site and the coaching team are using the opportunity to develop their own coaching, analytical and presentation skills.
But as head coach John Mulvihill explains, in these uncertain times, the emphasis is on the health, safety and general well-being of us all and that remains the number one priority.
Mulvihill said: “With no games, certainly during the next few weeks, the focus is on strength and conditioning, fitness and general health and well-being rather than specifically rugby.
“Robin and the S&C boys, the guys in medical are all working to ensure the players remain in the best possible condition, and healthy and happy, while monitoring their loads and nutrition.
“I have spoken personally to every player in the squad this week to listen and understand how they are adapting to this situation, to see how their family is coping and if they have any concerns.
“We will continue to do that on a weekly basis, while we are also forming small groups allocated to individual coaches.”
On Monday, the Cardiff Blues gym was opened up with players given the opportunity to sign out any equipment they could utlise at home.
The facility was promptly emptied and social media has been awash with footage of players following their training regime in very different surroundings, whether Dillon Lewis in his home gym, Nick Williams in the garden and lanes behind his home or Filo Paulo alongside his children’s toys.
“I am just really proud of the way the players have gone about it. Pretty much every single piece of equipment has been taken out of the gym, players are purchasing their own home gyms and they have been working in ones and twos outdoors,” continued Mulvihill.
“They have been a real credit to themselves and are just cracking on with it the best they can.
“As coaches it is also very different. We meet over video conference and are just trying to take the positives and use this as an opportunity.
“The guys are doing some research, analysing trends and some general CPD. For instance this week the coaches took a team each from the last weekends Super Rugby games between the Reds v Bulls and Sharks v Stormers.
“They were coded and each coach has presented their half-time talk from their particular game and we will now sit down for a full review on each game, with the relevant coach leading.
“CPD is always a massive part of things we do here, with coaches spending time with other teams both in rugby, other sports and in business. Next week every senior coach will attend an online conference held by the Leaders in Sport Institute.
“Obviously this is a pretty unknown and developing situation but we just have to adapt with it and be as proactive and positive as we can.”
Two of the key figure heads in ensuring the playing squad and wider rugby operation remain fit and firing during the weeks ahead are Head of Medical Dan Jones and Senior Strength and Conditioning coach Robin Sowden-Taylor.
Below they give their accounts on how the situation developed at Cardiff Arms Park and offer a unique insight to how their key departments are now functioning with the players fulfilling their training programmes remotely.
Dan Jones - Cardiff Blues Head of Medical
“Most importantly, the medical department has taken a player and staff health and welfare approach to managing the whole situation.
“We made sure that we engaged early with the coronavirus situation and initiated a senior management meeting on February 25 to draw up communication plans. We wanted to ensure that we were prepared and that all staff and players were fully informed and aware of what was unfolding elsewhere in the world.
“We had a strong view on the matter and worked very closely with our CEO Richard Holland to formulate an action plan should the PRO14 be suspended. When that subsequently happened late last week, we took the appropriate action to enforce a social distancing policy, with the full support of Richard and his team.
“Our view as a medical team, especially myself as the Head of Medical Services and Team Doctor Rob Young was that continuing to bring a group of 50-60 people together on a daily basis would’ve been socially irresponsible at that point as there was no competition or games to prepare for.
“Although at that stage it was a step further than the Public Health Wales guidelines, we felt that it was appropriate to our environment.
“As a professional sports team it is a very unique environment to which the general public health advice does not completely transfer, whereby players are potentially immuno-suppressed due to a high training intensity. Players share changing and recovery facilities, share meeting rooms, share a canteen and general facilities and equipment all in large groups.
“As an organisation we had a social responsibility to be proactive and put the health and safety of players, rugby staff, office staff and all of their families first.
“All players were put on individual programmes to conduct away from the club and the long term rehabbers were given programmes to follow with strict one-to-one policy initiated.
“Obviously there are challenges because the usual return-to-play timelines may be compromised, as individuals are not getting the same intensity of input as they would normally get.
“That’s been further complicated when, earlier this week, Boris Johnson advised against all non-essential contact and travel. Once that non-essential contact was declared, we took the next step and stopped all hands-on treatment and escalated the social distancing approach to the players' rehab.
“In response we implemented thorough and detailed plans for players to follow independently opened up the gym and physiotherapy departments so that players could borrow equipment to work at home. Credit where it’s due, the WRU have done the same in terms of contacting our international players and offering them the loan of their equipment from the WRU National Centres of Excellence.
"What we’re seeing is that although out of our comfort zone, everyone is pooling together and supporting each other in what is essentially unprecedented circumstances. This dictates the way we have to manage things, using a very different approach to what we are accustomed.
“As an entire organisation, we do not view this as a holiday. It’s an enforced off-season where players are working on aspects of their physical conditioning and performance, which wouldn’t usually be possible at this stage of the season due to the constant demand of games.”
Robin Sowden-Taylor - Cardiff Blues Head of Strength and Conditioning:
“It’s all come about really quickly and the strangest thing from our side, as a whole coaching group, is that this is probably the first time ever where we are struggling to plan ahead for the foreseeable future. The season might go on, or we might lead straight into the off-season and pre-season period - we just don’t know but we needed to be ready as a squad for whatever the outcome is.
“There’s uncertainty but everything happened pretty quickly towards the tail-end of last week and we were probably one of the first teams to decide to shut down. First and foremost it’s been about the health and well-being of the whole Cardiff Blues organisation, rather than just the playing group.
“It’s a time where, unfortunately, it’s not all about performance. It’s about making sure that players, coaches, staff their families are all fit and healthy. That’s the priority for the period.
“From my side, as a strength and conditioning coach, it is a very unique situation. We have been forced into doings things remotely and the boys have all had individual training plans to follow.
“Boys who have home gyms will be able to crack on throughout the period, while other boys have come down to the Arms Park and taken equipment from our Cardiff Blues gym for their homes.
“We were keen for everyone to have something to keep them ticking over, certainly if we head into lockdown. That enables the players to have a strength stimulus in their programme and they all have running sessions to complete.
“We have to be realistic with the situation we are now in. The priority during this period will be to maintain the players physical qualities during this period despite having a reduction in our training volume, I'm confident, as a squad this will be achieved through the work the boys will do remotely.
“The key area we’ve also looked at is nutrition as its the foundation of the performance pyramid. I have set all players individual daily calorie and macronutrient targets to track. We can maintain current lean muscle mass and avoid any unnecessary increases in skin folds through nutrition.
“We’re also working closely alongside our Supplements supplier PAS and sports nutritionist Chris Edwards who are supplying the boys with their nutrition supplementation, particularly protein and multivitamins, while the team chef Tony Kocker is sending lots of recipes out.
“The boys on the whole are very good so I’ve got no doubt that we’ll see very little regression during this period. There’s accountability on the players now, where they have to provide for themselves, and we’re in regular contact with them.
“We’ve got a couple of things that we’ve implemented recently to help monitor them. A lot of the squad are now using using the Oura Ring that is an excellent monitoring tool that allows players to track their recovery, through a range of different metrics such as sleep quality, heart rate variability, resting heart rate and the one now that is essential to key an eye on is their temperature which can indicator onset of illness if their is a deviation from their baseline.
“As coaching team we have access to the players data on a daily basis, so any concerns I have or Dan Jones has allows us to touch base with the players right away.
“As professional athletes, we are encouraging the boys to set daily routines in place to help give themselves consistency during this period. Everyone knows the potential of what it could bring, but you have to be ready and be prepared for things to get back up at short notice. We’re not writing off this season just yet and we’ll have to see how it plays out over the next few weeks.
“The players and management have to be ready should things start back up. With the group that we have, we have a good bunch of boys who are professionals who know how to manage themselves.
“And we’re here to guide and support them through the next few weeks, by supplying a support system however it maybe not just nutrition, programmes and equipment.”