Welsh rugby’s regional players will return from furlough next week as they prepare to re-start their Guinness Pro 14 season.
Players from Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets and the Dragons will return to organised training for the first time, although in small groups, with strict social distancing and following a Covid-19 testing regime.
The routines will be basic, with no close contact, with the hope the sessions can be normalised as the squads head towards the planned resumption of matches on August 22.
The Cardiff Blues plan to be the first back on July 2, with the Ospreys following three days later on July 5 and the Scarlets and Dragons soon after.
Some long-term injured players, however, who are still unable to train, will remain on the UK government’s furlough scheme as the cash-strapped regions bid to make savings after three months without income.
The top two Irish provinces Munster and Leinster returned to training today, with Ulster and Connacht scheduled to follow next week.
Wales lock Cory Hill will return to the Blues following his transfer from the Dragons and Wales prop Rhys Carre is all set to rejoin the Arms Park region after a season at Saracens.
Blues coach John Mulvihill is also hopeful that Wales flanker Ellis Jenkins is nearing fitness that could see him finally ready to return after a serious knee injury.
Jenkins’ rugby world was turned upside down moments after he was declared man of the match in Wales’ win over the Springboks in Cardiff on 24 November, 2018. As the Principality Stadium crowd roared their appreciation for his efforts, a last gasp tackle saw him wreck his knee and shatter his World Cup dreams.
“Structurally, Ellis has had the word that his knee is fine. He just needs to get back to training with the group before he starts playing again,” said Mulvihill.
“He’s important to us. He’s still the captain of our group and we’ve spoken a number of times about that going forward.
“I believe, and he believes, he’s still the best man for the job. We’re still working on the fact he’ll be back with us sooner rather than later so he can resume his career.”
After two operations, Jenkins visited world renowned specialist in sports reconditioning and performance training Bill Knowles in Philadelphia earlier this year and has been working hard during lockdown on his fitness.
Knowles helped the likes of Andy Murray, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, Alex Rodriguez, Frank Lampard and Jonny Wilkinson to return to play after major injuries and Mulvihill is hoping for a similar outcome for the 11-times capped Jenkins.
“Ellis was one of nine players on the long-term injury list by the time we finished the season and I think six of them were our starting outside backs,” said Mulvihill.
“It’s probably been toughest for our long-term injury boys during lockdown because they haven’t had the one-on-one treatment they would usually get. I’m sure they’ve gone through some dark days, but we’re looking forward to them coming back in on 1 July and getting the best care they can.
“I feel pretty certain we’ll have up to six of those guys available for game one, but until they come back in and get properly assessed we won’t really know. They have all progressed and are all a lot better than they were before.
“There were some significant injuries. Without individually picking them out, some of them are ready to go now, some of them aren’t far away, and there are one or two who had injuries sustained this season rather than last who are further away.”
Among them is Wales wing Josh Adams, who was forced to undergo surgery on an ankle injury he picked up in the Six Nations defeat to France in March.
He is due to return this month and Mulvihill hopes to get him fit and ready to go for the national side if they can secure some Test rugby later in the year.
The proposed fixtures see the Scarlets entertaining the Blues on August 22 while the Ospreys host the Dragons.
A week later, the Blues are due to have home advantage against the Ospreys, while the Dragons are set to face the Scarlets at Rodney Parade.
Teams from the same nation play against each other home and away before the season is concluded via semi-finals and a final.
Four consecutive weekends from the restart date have been earmarked to conclude the campaign.
The remaining eight rounds of fixtures scheduled will not be completed, meaning the regular season will be cut from 21 games to 15.
Those finishing in the top two places in Conference A and B will contest the semi-finals.
That final is scheduled to take place on Saturday, 12 September with the venue to be confirmed.
AUGUST 22: Leinster v Munster, Ospreys v Dragons, Connacht v Ulster, Edinburgh v Glasgow Warriors, Zebre v Treviso, Southern Kings v Cheetahs, Scarlets v Cardiff Blues.
AUGUST 29: Ulster v Leinster, Cardiff Blues v Ospreys, Dragons v Scarlets, Glasgow Warriors v Edinburgh, Benetton v Zebre, Cheetahs v Southern Kings, Munster v Connacht.
SEPTEMBER 5: Winner Conference A v Runner-up Conference B, Winner Conference B v Runner-up Conference A.
SEPTEMBER 12: European quarter-finals.
SEPTEMBER 19: PRO14 final.
SEPTEMBER 26: European semi-finals.