Rugby Union

Ulster rugby signings, Alby Mathewson and Ian Madigan, settling well in difficult landscape

Ireland players (from left) Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe, Ian Madigan, and Peter O'Mahony celebrate in the dying seconds of the match against Australia at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin on Saturday November 22 2014. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
John Flack

ULSTER'S new marquee half-back signings Alby Mathewson and Ian Madigan have arrived safely in Belfast and have already been on the training paddock at Kingspan Stadium.

However, it's a very different scenario for the New Zealand and Ireland international pair and the rest of head coach Dan McFarland's squad, with strict protocols in place due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

All members of the senior squad came through coronavirus testing with negative results as they prepare for the conclusion of the 2019/'20 season with an inter-pro PRO14 double header against Connacht and Leinster in late August followed by a likely semi-final and the Heineken Cup quarter-final away to Toulouse in September.

Ulster's head of operations and recruitment Bryn Cunningham has been busy overseeing the return-to-train and protocols and says the newcomers have had little difficulty blending in to what is a different environment in more than one sense.

“The two new additions have settled really well; it's difficult for new guys settling into a new environment, especially when that environment is completely unusual," said Cunningham.

"However, they have fitted in really well and are already working hard. They are both really excited to be part of the squad moving forward and I have no doubt they will be made to feel welcome."

Among the protocols in place is a strict one-way system around the stadium, regular medical checks allied to numerous precautionary measures to prevent possible contamination.

"There has been a huge amount of work that has gone on behind-the-scenes in the last few weeks and months," Cunningham added.

"In terms of the stadium itself, we looked at how we could set it up to create what is called a ‘performance bubble'. This is what each of the four provinces was tasked with by the IRFU.

"There are a lot of protocols in place to make sure that we are compliant. We have a really good set-up at Kingspan Stadium, which lends itself to a fairly comfortable one-way system.

"We set it up a couple of weeks prior to our first day back to make sure we were compliant with everything we needed to be.

"In terms of entry to the stadium, the performance bubble is cordoned off to anybody who is not on the essential list. That list contains the professional players, and performance staff – plus some staff from the branch office, who have to follow all the same guidelines and protocols as the performance group.

“Players and staff have completed a variety of different training modules from the IRFU and World Rugby before coming back onto the premises, and a traffic light system is in operation to allow them to come back in for training.

“We also carried out testing last month on all members of the essential group. Once we received confirmation of zero positive results, and everyone had completed the training modules, it allocated them an ‘amber' status which cleared them to arrive for training.

“Following on from this, everyone has to complete a daily questionnaire before arriving at the check-in desk at the stadium.

"We can assess the questionnaires, as a monitoring group, to ensure no answers raise any issues. If that does happen, there is an alert system built-in, and a number of key staff are made aware via email to deal with it appropriately.

"If players and staff pass the questionnaire, a scanner will do a temperature check with a facial recognition scanner – so there's no cross-contamination or touching of this equipment at the entry point.”

Cunningham is pleased to report that week one of training went without a hitch and he attributes that success to the meticulous planning which went into getting the stadium facilities ready beforehand.

"It was a bit of an unknown for everyone with challenges for us all. Thankfully all the work that was completed before we arrived meant it flowed seamlessly," he said.

"It's been very positive ‘return to rugby' so far – we have had no red flags or issues. We will be adding more players as group sizes increase slightly and that will throw-up more challenges, but we are well-prepared and have the facilities to accommodate."

The focus for Cunningham and the coaching ticket along with the players will shortly switch to preparing for a return to competitive action against Connacht on the weekend of August 22-23 in Dublin which will be a gradual process," said the Bangor man.

"We need to make sure the stages we go through put us in the best position to play competitive rugby.

"In a contact sport like rugby, players need a number of weeks' training at a high intensity – and those stages will come – but for now, the focus is on individual work, fitness work, speed work and gym work," Cunningham explained.

"The players will be excited to move through the stages and everyone will have a keen focus on being ready for those matches in August."

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