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Ulster return to training with clean bill of health ahead of rugby restart



Welcome reunion: Dan McFarland will have his squad together today for the first time in three months

Welcome reunion: Dan McFarland will have his squad together today for the first time in three months

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Welcome reunion: Dan McFarland will have his squad together today for the first time in three months

Ulster have been granted a clean bill of health ahead of this morning's return to training with all squad and staff members tested for coronavirus having received negative results.

The province have been on the sidelines since February 22, when they beat Cheetahs at Kingspan Stadium, with the Covid-19 pandemic first seeing their proposed trip to Benetton cancelled before both the Guinness PRO14 and Heineken Cup were then suspended in March.

With many players having only been able to gather up some limited gym equipment before Kingspan Stadium was shuttered, today's modified training will mark the first time they have seen anything that resembles close to normal service in almost four months.

Testing in Connacht, who Ulster are scheduled to meet when rugby resumes behind closed doors in the Aviva Stadium during the weekend of August 22, similarly returned no confirmed cases.

In all, the IRFU ordered 258 tests to be carried out by the Cork-based company Advanced Medical Services, with no positive results in any of the four provinces.

Leinster and Munster returned to their own training bases a week ago today, hitting the paddock in groups of seven with no access to communal spaces such as changing areas, team rooms or video analysis suites.

Ulster will be under similar restrictions back at base today as they prepare for what is hoped to be a packed schedule upon the game's resumption.

After Connacht, Dan McFarland's men will take on Leinster a week later at the same venue which, barring a wholly unlikely sequence of results, will be followed by a PRO14 semi-final away to the table-toppers in Conference B, likely against Edinburgh but with Munster also in the mix.

The league champions will be crowned on September 12 with EPCR confirming last week that the Champions Cup quarter-finals, including Ulster's trip to Toulouse, will be staged the weekend of September 19.

While all such proposals remain just that with the possibility of a second wave of Covid-19 still prevalent, for the northern province as well as Leinster that schedule raises the possibility of six consecutive game weeks before the 2020-21 PRO14 season is slated to belatedly begin in October.

The squad are set to be boosted in number though with new signings Ian Madigan and Alby Mathewson having inked deals before the pandemic struck, while two of last summer's additions will be hoping that at least one positive from the forced break is the opportunity to salvage lost debut seasons.

Former Worcester prop Gareth Milasinovich tore an ACL in his first week of pre-season almost a year ago and has yet to make his debut for the side, while former Wallaby lock Sam Carter made just five starts before shipping a shoulder problem against Bath in November, and that pair's return to fitness would certainly boost McFarland's options in positions where his squad has occasionally looked short of numbers.

Meanwhile, after much to-ing and fro-ing over a global schedule, it appears rugby's status quo will continue for at least another season.

World Rugby are due to announce the schedule for international rugby this autumn in the coming days, while they also hope to find agreement on an aligned calendar from 2020-21 onwards before their June 30 deadline.

That looks set to run aground after clubs in France and England baulked at the prospect of playing through the summer, an idea that was also viewed unfavourably by the IRFU.

At one point it looked like the Lions series might move to September and October as part of a global shift, but there is increasing confidence that it will proceed as planned in July and August 2021.

Changes could be put in place for the start of the 2021-22 season that could see the 2022 July window shift to October with the top six teams from the Six Nations and Rugby Championship playing off against each other.

However, clubs want to keep existing windows in place, fearing a financial loss from any change. And they look set to reject the idea of starting in December or January and finishing in September.

Those plans were presented to league chiefs from France (LNR) and England's Premiership Rugby at a meeting last month and Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson says it was a mistake not to involve them in the process from the start.

"There's an awful lot of talk about the global season and that is undecided yet," Dawson said.

"Some of the discussions were a little naive to start with. Not to include LNR and Premiership Rugby, who employ more than 1,000 professional players, in the early discussions was naive.

"It's undecided yet, but if I was a betting man I think it will end up with something closer to the status quo - that seems to be how it's panning out at the moment."

Dawson appeared to confirm that next season's Champions Cup will proceed with 24 teams and one fewer round of games. That will see eight teams from the three leagues qualify, meaning that Connacht will be involved.

"The competition from EPCR will be different, it's going from 20 teams to 24. That's a one-off, we'll have one fewer weekend. It's an eight-weekend competition instead of a nine-week competition," he told supporters.

World Rugby's announcement will further cement rugby's schedule on the back of PRO14 and EPCR announcing their outstanding fixtures and season start dates in the last two weeks.

It is expected that the outstanding Six Nations matches will be played in the last two weeks of October, but it is not yet known what format November will take.

Belfast Telegraph