Currie Cup's problematic COVID protocols in the spotlight
REACTION: The Cheetahs are going through one of their more challenging periods in their illustrious 125-year history, but are adamant they will emerge to restore their pride.
Harold Verster, Managing Director of the Free State Cheetahs, and defence coach Charl Strydom addressed the media this week – following the cancellation of their Round Three Currie Cup encounter with the Bulls.
The game, scheduled to take place in Bloemfontein on Wednesday, was cancelled due to 13 Cheetahs players and several members of the management team – including head coach Hawies Fourie – having tested positive for COVID-19.
It was another setback in a year that has so far produced very little joy for the Bloemfontein outfit.
After a mixed bag in the 2020/21 Currie Cup season, they failed to make the play-offs.
The Preparation series brought them three wins – against the Stormers (34-33), Sharks (39-38) and Eastern Province Elephants (71-12).
However, it was already obvious that the mass departures at the end of 2020 – after they were dumped by SA Rugby as a South African franchise and were left without an international competition – had left the Cheetahs with a massive mountain to climb.
After watching the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions compete in the Rainbow Cup, they had high hopes of making their mark in the 2021 Currie Cup.
However, a fractured pre-season – the result of many players having to go into COVID-19-enforced isolation and games being called off – they lost their First Round match to Griquas (10-31) in Kimberley.
And the COVID-19 struck again and the Wednesday game was called off.
They have to sit tight for 10 days to see if they can field a team when their scheduled encounter with the Pumas come around on July 9.
The Cheetahs boss, Harold, revealed just how disruptive the COVID-curse has been.
This past Monday Cameron Dawson returned a positive result for COVID-19 and by implication, fellow front row forwards Aranos Coetzee and Wilmar Arnoldi were forced to isolate as contact cases.
There was a ripple effect in the team, because of contact situations with other teammates on the bus and on the trip – resulting in a shortage of players to make up a complete team.
Verster said they were left with only 19 fit and available players for the game against the Bulls.
The big problem was in the front row, where they did not have sufficient resources according to the game player welfare regulations.
And as a knock-on effect Griquas players who scrummed against the Cheetahs have also been forced into self-isolation, placing them under pressure as well.
It was not just the players that were forced into isolation. Head coach Hawies Fourie, along with an assistant coach, fitness coach and logistics manager are also in isolation.
Defence coach Charl Strydom also questioned the process for vaccinating players in domestic competitions.
He pointed out that the four franchises that will face the British and Irish Lions got preferential vaccinations, while the three other Currie Cup teams – Cheetahs, Griquas and Pumas – have not been afforded that opportunity.
“The three teams with the smallest squads have not been vaccinated,” he said, pointing to the risk of more cancelled matches for the minnows.
“The prospect of the other three unions [Cheetahs, Griquas and Pumas] being forced into isolation are bigger than that of the unions who have been vaccinated,” Strydom told a virtual media briefing.
“It is not a good situation for us at the moment.”
He also pointed out that with a host of midweek and weekend games coming in rapid succession – with some Sunday-Wednesday or Wednesday-Saturday games – the testing protocols become even more problematic.
Teams have to wait for 48 hours after a game before testing and then have to declare 51 hours ahead of their next game if they have a team available.
It could result in the team being unable to test players by the time they have to declare that they are COVID free.