Oldham away in the Challenge Cup gives us a realistic chance of progression and with the second round draw also taking place the prospect of facing Swinton or Newcastle shouldn’t hold any fears for us. It has been a difficult period of preparation with so many disruptions. There are very few injuries in the camp but having had no contact for over a year you can bet the treatment room will be full when the matches arrive.
Playing the likes of Oldham, Newcastle and Swinton will give us some idea where we are as a group. The board are very ambitious, and it will be a good opportunity to see if our current crop of players has what it takes to beat teams that are likely to be in the bottom half of the Championship away from home. Make no mistake they will be no easy fixtures, but they are the type of fixture that I would like to think we could win if we are to establish ourselves as a true Championship side. Will we get every indication we can keep faith in our squad or do we need strengthening in certain positions?
There have been restrictions imposed by the RFL in terms of the number of warm-up games that we are allowed and that is currently set at two. By putting the restrictions in place, they are trying to reduce the number of matches and the likelihood of COVID transmission but at the same time acknowledge that players need some friendlies to get back in the groove. Personally, I have seen studies that state the risk of infection is very low during matches and we couple that with testing of the players within 24 hours of a game, health-checks and temperature checks within hours of the game and all manner of cleaning protocols so my view is that we should be allowed more games if we choose.
It means we must choose when we have our friendlies. Do we have one before the Challenge Cup and another in April or use the Challenge Cup as part of our league preparation with both friendlies in April? I’ve left that for the coaching staff to decide but we have had approaches from a couple of Championship clubs wanting a game before the Challenge Cup. We’ll probably make the call this week. There’s a slim chance there could be a crowd in April which would be fantastic for everyone.
Another factor is getting approval for the ground to open in a COVID secure way. We have produced risk assessments, management plans, staff briefing plans, cleaning plans, entry plans, testing plans, more plans than you dare to dream of. We can only dream of the days before COVID, but we must demonstrate that we understand what we are doing to produce a safe environment for players, staff and spectators.
We have met with the council Safety Advisory Group this week and they are very supportive and understanding of all the work we have been doing so hopefully we will get a COVID secure revised safety certificate within a week or so and then we can pass all of our documentation to the RFL for their approval.
It is probably only then that we can really start to believe, after over 12 months, that we will again see professional rugby at The Matt Johnson Prestige Stadium.