So now we know. The Guinness Six Nations is likely to be held behind closed doors in its entirety.
The SRU’s admission that the first home match against Wales on February 13 will be held without fans in Murrayfield was as predictable as a dreich winter in Scotland, and with the opening match at Twickenham already confirmed as being played behind closed doors, it now looks as if the whole tournament will have to be played without spectators in the various stadia.
No sane Government is going to allow any size of crowds to attend matches while the new variants of the coronavirus are rampaging through their populations. And don’t forget that Italy, France and Ireland also have the new variants and their Governments are, if anything, imposing even stricter restrictions than the UK and Scottish Governments.
I previously called for the whole tournament to be postponed to April, and now I’m thinking even later in the year. I accept that’s not going to happen, not least because we don’t know when it will be safe to have crowds in again. It sticks in the craw, however, that once again we won’t get a proper Six Nations because the rugby authorities and the broadcasters have joined together to say so.
I completely understand the desperate need for the SRU and all the Unions to gain some income from any source they can, so the matches are going ahead to keep the broadcasters happy, but that will lose the SRU millions of pounds in match day income they can’t afford to lose.
With three home internationals in this year’s tournament, the SRU could have been looking at banking north of £10m at least from ticket income, which, don’t forget, was going to be heavily boosted by the Nevis membership scheme. The SRU had hoped to have a ballot of Nevis members completed by Friday, January 8, for any tickets that they would have been allowed to sell if the Scottish Government eased its coronavirus restrictions, but of course those restrictions have been tightened and extended and the likelihood is that it will take to the end of the full vaccination programme across the whole of Europe before it is safe to have crowds watching international rugby matches again.
So all that ticket money is lost, and I just hope the broadcasting income is sufficient to keep the SRU and all the other Unions solvent. And given that they will be broadcasting a second-rate product – any international match behind closed doors is always going to be second-rate – will the broadcasters pay full whack or demand a rebate? I think we should be told…
Once again a we repeat the debacle of last year, none of the unions bothered to ask their fans – you know, the people that pay their wages – what they would like to see. I am absolutely convinced that the majority of fans in all Six Nations would have said ‘postpone’ rather than go ahead as planned, because they know that merely watching a match on telly is absolutely no substitute for the real thing.
The point is that the fans are an integral part of the action within a stadium, particularly at Murrayfield where 67,000 spectators can make a helluva din that definitely affects the players. The crowd gets involved in the action in that unique bond between those on the pitch and those off it, and seeing a match on television just is not the same. To me the Six Nations is all about meeting old pals.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcements yesterday mean that we won’t even be able to gather in pubs or club to watch the England and Wales matches, and as far as I can see, you will have to break the rules, maybe even the law, to gather in any size of a group to watch the first two matches and probably the rest of the tournament because I don’t see the current restrictions being lifted to April, not least because the vaccination programme will not reach the younger majority of the populace until then.
The First Minister said earlier this week that it will take until September to get everyone vaccinated, and personally I think she is being optimistic. Put it this way, I for one will not be going anywhere near a crowd of any kind until after I get my second jab, and even then I’ll still be taking every precaution because knowing my luck, I’ll be one of the 10 per cent or so for whom the vaccination won’t work.
Don’t get me wrong – I will watch all the matches on television, but only out of duty. I will also hope that all the players stick to their rigid safety-first routines and avoid catching this dreadful disease. But going behind closed doors, although it is the correct thing to do, just isn’t rugby.