Sport teetering on the brink as Covid cases rise again

Tom Morgan
·4-min read
Dan Sarginson of Salford Red Devils attempts to tackle Ratu Naulago of Hull FC during the Betfred Super League match between Salford Red Devils and Hull FC at Emerald Headingley Stadium on August 09, 2020 in Leeds, England.  - GETTY IMAGES
Dan Sarginson of Salford Red Devils attempts to tackle Ratu Naulago of Hull FC during the Betfred Super League match between Salford Red Devils and Hull FC at Emerald Headingley Stadium on August 09, 2020 in Leeds, England. - GETTY IMAGES

Professional sport was warned it is on a knife-edge again after Covid-19 outbreaks in rugby league and women's football fuelled fears that a host of competitions may be forced back into lockdown within weeks.

Amid mounting evidence of a second wave across Europe, the recently-returned Rugby Super League was plunged into turmoil after Hull FC and Salford Red Devils were told their matches had been abandoned due to six positive tests after they played each other.

Rugby Football League officials, who borrowed £16million from Government to help resume the sport, were scrambling to contain a crisis which sets off alarm bells for rugby union counterparts when the Gallagher Premiership resumes on Friday. In the last round of testing for the Premiership, four tested positive, including one player.

Preparations for the resumption of the Women's Champions League, meanwhile, were also engulfed by uncertainty after a fresh round of testing showed five Atletico Madrid palyers had tested positive, five days after the club recorded one case.

Uefa was said to  be closely monitoring the situation for the tournament in Spain, which is facing the worst coronavirus infection rate in Western Europe, 1,418 in its latest daily count. The UK is not far behind, however, recording more than 1,000 cases in a day for the third time in the past week.

Matches are currently scheduled to resume in Bilbao and San Sebastien, on Friday Aug 21, despite experts expressing concern that Spain was at a "critical moment" after La Liga men's clubs endured their biggest surge since the peak of the pandemic. Barcelona said an unnamed squad member tested positive on Wednesday after it emerged there had been six cases at Athletic Bilbao, two at Valencia and two at Atletico Madrid's men's outfit.

The new cases come after Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, warned that Scottish football matches could be shut down after Celtic and Aberdeen players breached rules that have led to both clubs having their next two games called off.

Prof John Ashton, the former director of public for north-west England, says he expects more cases in sport like Celtic defender Boli Bolingoli, who returned to his club within 24 hours of flying back from Spain without self-isolating, and the eight Aberdeen players who visited a bar together.

"The biosecurity bubbles that we see in sport are only as strong as the weakest link," he told Telegraph Sport. "No matter how robust, the arrangements are put in place by the sporting bodies, and the club's themselves. It's always going to be vulnerable to core behaviour by the players who are probably not so different from the communities that they're drawn from."

Ashton expressed concern over the fate of a host of domestic sports in the coming weeks. Outside the mega-rich bubble of the Premier League, he said lesser-funded competitions will be particularly vulnerable to regional lockdowns as have already been seen in Manchester, Preston, Aberdeen, Kirklees and Bradford. "I'm anticipating there's going to be a lot more of this virus around now and that will obviously affect sport," he said. "This isn't a question of a second wave as the first wave's not going away in this country. We will see more very local lockdowns and that will inevitably disrupt play."

The Premier League has managed to avoid any fresh postponements under its £4million testing regime, prompting calls for the Super League to double its screening schedule to twice a week. Whitehall sources confirmed to Telegraph Sport on Wednesday night that all team sports have the same effective Covid instructions, suggesting the decision to quarantine the rugby squads was made by the sport internally.

The Super League had restarted on August 2, shortly after Toronto Wolfpack withdrew due to a financial crisis, but matches involving Hull and Salford Red Devils, scheduled for this weekend, have been postponed.

It follows last Sunday’s meeting between the sides at Headingley, after which five Hull players involved, a sixth unused squad member, and two coaching staff, all tested positive for coronavirus.   

Hull owner Adam Pearson believes the virus was brought into the club after one of his players visited his unwell baby in hospital last week. Premiership rugby union will also test players twice a week upon its restart on Friday and Pearson said: “This begs the question about why there maybe needs to be another test, pre-game.”

Ongoing rises across Europe have dented Barry Hearn's hopes that Boris Johnson could lift the "brake" he put on lockdown easing in time for snooker's World Championship final.

Ministers face a race against time to ensure enough testing is carried out at stadiums ahead of a proposed October 1 return for crowds after spectator pilots were cancelled at the snooker, cricket and horse racing almost two weeks ago.

A Government update is expected at the end of this week.