Ulster are set to ramp up their preparations for rugby's proposed restart next month after a second batch of Covid-19 testing again produced no positive results.
The province haven't had a match for five months thanks to the pandemic but, now bolstered by new signings Ian Madigan and Alby Mathewson, have been back in training since June 27, undertaking a modified regime that has involved gathering only in small groups.
Due to take on Connacht behind closed doors at the Aviva Stadium on August 23, the news of another clean slate of testing is a huge step towards a successful return with players now cleared for a phased resumption of contact.
Connacht's own testing similarly returned no positive results, with Leinster and Munster due to be tested next week. To date, there have been 407 tests carried out on players and staff across the four provinces with zero positive results.
"The first tranche of the second round of PCR testing has been successfully completed," confirmed IRFU medical director Rod McLoughlin.
"The players and staff will continue to undergo daily medical screening and assessment. Leinster and Munster will undergo their second testing round when they return from their mid pre-season breaks."
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland has already expressed his enthusiasm for re-introducing some physicality to his sessions.
"In terms of a return to contact, that will start (this) week on a gradual basis," he said.
"The first week there will be a little more contact, and then the following week, tackling, rucking and a certain degree of lineout work will be introduced.
"After that, we'll move into scrums and mauls.
"The IRFU has helped the provinces develop that graduated return and we're looking forward to it. I personally can't wait until we get back into scrums."
Meanwhile, the IRFU yesterday confirmed an extension of their deal with Canterbury, who will continue to act as kit supplier to the men's, women's, Under-20s and Sevens sides until 2024.