Monday, 25 Jan 2021

Coronavirus: Harlequins vs Bath marks return of Premiership rugby with fans in pilot scheme

It’s the noise that sends shivers down your spine: the roar of real fans singing and cheering after months of silence. 

Around 2,700 of them were allowed into the Twickenham Stoop stadium in London to watch Harlequins against Bath.

It was the first Premiership rugby match with a crowd since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown.

The match was selected as part of a government pilot scheme to test whether spectators can safely return to live sport during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Those inside were season ticket holders, chosen by ballot. With social distancing rules, only 20% or so of the 14,800 capacity ground could be filled, which made it feel a little bit empty.

Laurie Dalrymple, chief executive of Harlequins, told Sky News the size of the crowd meant that the match “isn’t really about making a profitable return”, but was an important step towards getting fans through the gates and watching rugby.

Supporters were separated in the stands to adhere to the “one metre plus” government guidance, but families who had tickets were allowed to sit together.

Before the game there was a mix of nervousness and excitement in the air.

Fans were delighted to be supporting their club in the flesh and everybody I spoke to said they felt protected by the safety measures in place.

Tickets had to be booked in advance and a name provided, there were ID and temperature checks on arrival, and health questionnaire forms had to be completed, alongside giving details for the track and trace system.

Face masks were compulsory (except when eating or drinking) and fans were allocated arrival times to make sure the turnstiles were not too busy before the game.

It was all very ordered and a little bit strange.

For once at a sports game there was ample parking to encourage people to avoid public transport.

Most impressive was the new food and drink ordering system. To cut out queuing, fans could use a QR code to order food and beer from their seats.

I’m sure supporters would like to see this continued even if things get back to normal.

It would mean no more missing tries and hard-hitting tackles because it was your turn to buy a round.

From Harlequins’ stadium you can see Twickenham, “The Home of England Rugby”, which is only half a mile away.

If pilot matches like these are successful, the government hopes to allow fans to return to watching live sport by October.

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That would mean that by the time England take on the Barbarians on 25 October, up to 20,000 fans could be allowed inside Twickenham to watch.

Just like going to restaurants, museums, pubs, and places of work, going to a match at a stadium was a very different experience compared to before the pandemic.

But the moment that first try was scored and I was hit by the roar from the Harlequins fans, the magic of live sport returned.

The noise. The passion. It is an atmosphere that is impossible to recreate at home on the sofa.

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