Saints scrum guru Ferguson: I've become an expert on bubbles!

There will be few sports that will have more Covid-19 protocols in place than rugby union.

By Tom Vickers
Friday, 15th January 2021, 1:18 pm
Updated Friday, 15th January 2021, 1:22 pm
Matt Ferguson has had to get used to a new way of scrum coaching
Matt Ferguson has had to get used to a new way of scrum coaching

Up and down the country, clubs are battling to keep the dreaded virus at bay.

But despite even the most diligent work, some are unable to stave it off.

That has been the case at Saints lately, meaning their match against Leicester Tigers last weekend had to be cancelled.

It was the second week in succession that a black, green and gold game was called off, after the previous weekend’s opponents, London Irish, had their own Covid-19 issues to deal with.

It really is a tough time in sport and in life in general.

And for Saints scrum guru Matt Ferguson there has been so much extra thought going into his work as he deals with scenarios he would never have imagined this time last year.

“I’ve now become an expert on bubbles and numbers instead of pushing and angles,” Ferguson said.

“The face to face contact of any kind of scrummaging and any activity of that nature would be classed as a close contact.

“If I had the virus and me and you were to scrummage, even though you might test negative, you would be out for 10 days because you’ve been in a one-on-one situation with me.

“As a coaching group, we always select our team pretty early in the week anyway because preparation equals performance.

“As soon as we’ve got an idea who the six are going to be, I base my idea on those six props being a bubble.

“We’re incredibly lucky at Saints that we’ve got four different front rows, if all fit, who are all Premiership quality front rowers.

“The matchday starters and matchday bench would be in one bubble and they are not allowed to look at, breathe or even talk to any of the other two front rows.

“Because if someone in our matchday squad was to record a positive, it would take out the other five props.

“It means if it was Hilly (Paul Hill) and Owen (Franks) in our matchday squad then we’d be looking at a (Ehren) Painter and a (Karl) Garside to come in and complete that fixture.

“For me, who likes lots of movement between who scrummages against who, it’s something I’ve really had to think about.

“It is something that’s played a part in my planning and all our sessions are videoed so if someone did produce a positive, we’d have to produce the footage from the previous 48 hours of training.

“It’s not our decision, it’s the powers-that-be, who watch our sessions.

“Even things like talking to people in huddles, you have too many of those in a session then it goes from low risk to high risk.

“The front row group have been absolutely outstanding in helping me out with it.”

Saints have even had conversations about limiting the scrum contact in training as much as possible to try to prevent games being called off.

“Boydy (Saints boss Chris Boyd) talks about bang for buck and I’ve met with all of the front rowers recently to talk about the minimum operating standard we need to go into a Premiership fixture.

“Because if we can go from 20 scrums to 10 per week and still feel we’re prepared and performance-ready, then the risk-reward of that is worth taking.

“The harness work, the elastic bands all have a part to play but it’s like the old community club team run; most community clubs will do a team run against nobody on Thursday night and be world beaters, but the problem is that the game is different to that on a Saturday afternoon.

“The best way to prepare to scrum is to scrummage, but scrummaging gives you the highest risk or transmission.

“The risk and reward is something I’m challenged by and we’ve got an unbelievable set of physios and medical staff who help us put Covid first and scrum second.”

Saints were forced to close their training ground last week as a number of Covid-19 cases were confirmed at the club.

It meant the game against Tigers could not go ahead.

And Ferguson said: “It has to be safety first.

“We do believe we had a squad that were fit and able to play the game, but we have to take the information taken from the public health authority and the wider scheme of things for our players, staff, their families and also Tigers.

“It has to be the right decision.

“We’d had a steady but small increase in the number of cases that have been reported and the decision that was made on the Wednesday isn’t a rugby decision.

“If we were a shoe factory or a supermarket, Public Health England would look at that increase of cases and make a decision based on that.

“Within a squad of 47 players, we’ve got plenty who are fit and able, but it’s the fact there has been a small increase over a few weeks that has led to the decision.

“It’s frustrating because the lads have been unbelievably diligent in terms of the way they’ve acted.

“The heroes of Saints over the past nine months are the people we never see on the pitch: our Covid managers, the cleaners.

“We have one way coming in, one way going out, toilets are marked and you go into a shower now and there’s a big red cross on one and a tick on another.

“We have meetings outdoors undercover, if we have to spend any time in a room we’ve got face masks.

“There’s been an unbelievable amount of work done in the background to make sure this doesn’t happen and unfortunately as I think will happen with probably every club, it’s just crept through the door.

“What we’re doing now is making sure we kick it back out.”

With games being called off on most weekends now, the league table is starting take on a slightly surreal

look.

Teams who have to cancel games due to Covid are given two Premiership points while their scheduled opponents take four.

That has led to talk about relegation being scrapped this season to stop a side badly hit by Covid being dropped into the Championship due to little fault of their own on the field.

But Ferguson says it is too soon to discuss ringfencing the Premiership.

“At this stage, it’s probably too early to say, but I do agree that any league table should be there on earned right,” he said.

“You win a league or you get relegated because of your performances, not because of a pandemic.

“You could make a decision to say there’s no relegation now and then find out there are no more games cancelled, in which case I think the whole promotion, relegation, top six, top four is why we all play.

“I wouldn’t want this league this season to have a Covid bearing or any team to be denied a position or saved because of other teams getting the virus.

“Leicester getting four points from being at Franklin’s Gardens was probably a good day for them, eh?”