When Ulster Rugby coaches spoke of the inevitable bumps in the road when returning to top-level sport while still in the grip of a global pandemic, they could hardly have known that they’d come both so soon and so close to home.
A pair of entertaining Irish derbies in the Aviva Stadium over the weekend were hardly business as usual - empty seats were naturally the most apparent of the many changes and a host of safety and social distancing protocols were required too in order to ensure the show was able to get back on the road - but turning off the lights in Dublin on Sunday evening, the feeling among organisers was surely one of relief.
In terms of getting the game going again, it seemed things could hardly have gone better, and while behind closed doors was hardly the ideal, neither was it rendered unwatchable.
Whether played in front of a sea of partisan supporters or one of inanimate green plastic, tackles were still tackles, tries were still tries, rugby was still rugby.
With knock-out clashes on the horizon, the stakes soon to be riding on each game would keep the pot boiling until something more akin to what we know could return.
But, despite the running off of Premiership football’s ‘Project Restart’ without much of a hitch, sport elsewhere has shown that there is simply no way to fully mitigate against the virus’ impact.
Just today, Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba has tested positive while, across the pond, baseball’s return to play has been riddled with so many cases that the sport has not featured a full slate of games on any given night for a full month.
Basketball has had greater success - until Wednesday night’s player strike in light of rising civil unrest - but the cost has been higher too, all involved having had to cocoon in a Disneyland Florida ‘bubble’ since the start of July. In such an environment, behaviours that would have once seemed mundane - such as one player’s well-documented trip to pick up some chicken wings - were feared as having the potential to cost the league their billion dollar TV contracts.
Rugby around the globe hasn’t been immune - Bordeaux today have become the latest Top 14 club to report a case ahead of their restart next week while, in New Zealand, the final game of their domestic competition was cancelled after a cluster of cases in Auckland.
Ultimately, Ulster’s own bump in the road came only a relative blink after their return. The news breaking on Wednesday evening that a “number of COVID-19 cases were identified within the Academy squad” offered the stark reminder that, for all the hard work that went into ensuring last weekend’s games could go ahead, sport in 2020 is no more stable than the proverbial house of cards.
Ulster identified only one member of their senior panel as a “close contact” of those who had tested positive but, when you consider that up and comers from the under-age set-up usually train regularly with the senior side throughout pre-season, and indeed that one Academy player made the trip to the Aviva Stadium on Sunday and took part in the warm-up, you realise just how far-reaching the consequences could have been, not just for Ulster but for the PRO14 as a whole, as well as the Champions Cup.
With Ulster due to play three games, in three different countries, against three different opponents over the next four weekends, what was already a logistical minefield to see both competitions through to their completion despite a lengthy lockdown hiatus would become impossible if the spread of the virus were to impact upon Dan McFarland’s ability to field a side that could fulfil those fixtures.
With Test clashes rugby’s golden goose, the supposed resumption on October 24 of the Six Nations and further international games all the way through into December leaves little margin for any further postponements of club games.
With the IRFU supposedly confident that Saturday’s game against Leinster will go ahead, in a strictly sporting sense, all that it appears will be impacted upon as is will be Ulster’s preparation for a fixture that has no bearing on their season’s fate thanks to their play-off place having been secured last weekend.
Having been off Monday, sent home on Tuesday and forced to skip training on Wednesday, that has certainly been compromised, just as Munster found when forced to abandon sessions of their own a fortnight ago, again after a positive test in the Academy.
While the expected wishes of a speedy recovery for those involved in Ulster were quick to flood in online, so too were there comments questioning how the virus had managed to penetrate the bubble. To engender stigma or imply guilt surrounding an illness that has already afflicted 24million worldwide will do little good though, especially when early self-reporting of symptoms could be so crucial.
And while the fact that the only cases in Irish Rugby have come among Academy set-ups will tally with fears outlined by the World Health Organisation’s warning earlier this month that it is society’s youth who could be driving spikes across Europe, it is important to remember their different circumstances too.
The reality is that the lives of young Academy players will not as easily allow for the monastic existence currently asked of the more established Test stars. For starters, paid considerably less, it is far more likely that they live in shared accommodation and that through necessities such as study that they will soon be part of a wider peer group too.
Usually farmed out to club teams for game time once the season gets fully up and running, quite how the widening of their social contacts even further, or indeed the ‘A’ team fixtures mooted for next month, will pan out is anyone’s guess.
What does seem safe to assume is that Wednesday's news will not be the last such statement we see during these most uncertain of times.
For now the show goes on. But after another close shave, there’s simply no way of telling for how long.