No rugby fans in stadiums yet, but soon ’Christmas’ will come when Lions arrive, Newsline

SATURDAY, September 26 heralds the return to action for South Africa’s four Super Rugby franchises and from thereon it will be full-on until the domestic competition’s final match on January 16, next year.

There is unlikely to be much of a break for the players, with the need to start the 2021 season as soon as possible. The 2021 rugby season in South Africa, with the arrival of the British & Irish Lions for an eight-match rugby extravaganza, will be the biggest sporting year in the country since the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup.

The Lions, made up of the best players from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, only tour South Africa every 12 years, and this will be the 14th time the Lions visit South Africa since the original 1891 (20 match) rugby marathon. The key to any tournament success, and most notably an event like the British & Irish Lions, is fan support at the stadiums.

The South African sporting fans spoke with their wallets, as much as their hearts, when the official Ticket Ballot numbers were confirmed earlier in the week. In excess of 260 000 users visited the official South Africa Tour website and South African ticket applications totalled 323 964. This number doesn’t include the expected 30 000 travelling Lions supporters.

Sport codes, regardless of country, have in recent months largely resorted to matches and tournaments being played behind closed doors. This has provided broadcasters with matches, kept alive leagues, teams and the livelihoods of those who play sport or have careers linked to sport.

This can’t be a long-term solution because the strength of all professional sport is in a team or league’s ability to fill stadiums with supporters.

My sporting Christmas wish in South Africa is for matches to be played in front of a live stadium audience. The integration can be achieved, with a strategic approach that targets a youthful audience, who are least at risk in contracting the virus.

We’ve seen the success stories in New Zealand and in Australia, when it comes to spectators and Australia, especially, has been particular about this gradual increase of numbers at matches.

Spectators are screened, positioned in a way that ensures social distancing is maintained and all Covid safety protocols in mask-wearing and hand sanitation are non-negotiables.

New Zealand, for two months, had the luxury of no active Covid cases and during this time all sporting events were open to as many spectators as the stadium could take. Several of their Super Rugby derbies were sold out events.

Covid-19, considering the vast opinions of health experts, is not just going to disappear. We are all going to have to learn to live with it and navigate our way through it.

But the world simply can’t indefinitely stop and restart. South Africa’s active case numbers, according to official statistics, are the lowest they’ve been since the numbers spiked three months ago.

I accept there will be an initial conservative approach to sporting events, but there has to be intent that matches be played in front of spectators. In a stadium with a 50 000 capacity, being able to seat 10 000 and conform to every safety regulation around Covid, can be achieved.

The integrated lifting of the international travel ban is an injection into tourism and the economy, but closer to home, the sporting stadium attendance waters have to be tested sooner rather than later. Rugby in South Africa is back tomorrow.

For that I am grateful, but rugby (and all sport) in this country will only feel like it is back when those of us who love our sport, are close enough to the action to smell the grass, feel the collisions and create the type of stadium atmosphere that turns a match into an occasion.

* Mark Keohane is an award-winning sports journalist and a regular contributor to Independent Media sport.