SCOTLAND’S First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, says that she is hopeful that crowds will be permitted at Murrayfield during the Six Nations, which kicks-off on 5th February when England will provide the opposition at the national stadium. But she insisted that she is not currently in a position to make any promises on that during a critical stage in the battle against the spread of the Omicron strain of the Covid virus across the UK.
A cap of 500 on attendances at outdoor events is currently in place but will be reviewed next week, with sports fans hopeful of a relaxation in the rule on 17th January.
“There is many things that I really wish I had over the course of this pandemic and one of them is a crystal ball to be able to see into the future with certainty,” she said, when asked about giving clarity about the prospect of crowds being permitted to return for the England game. “It is really difficult at this stage of a phase of a virus to be certain about the future, that’s why we need to monitor things on a closer-time basis.
“But we have, right throughout, had very good discussions with the SRU about matches at Murrayfield. They have been very, very constructive at working with us to enable games to go ahead.
“I know how important clarity is for those who cater for big sporting events, not least matches at Murrayfield, so that is very much in our mind as we make decisions.
“I hope very much that we won’t have to go beyond the 17th January with these restrictions. All of us, including myself, want to be able to cheer Scotland on in the Six Nations, but I don’t do anybody any good if I try to give certainty ahead of our ability to do that.
”But we will continue to use the data, use the evidence, and reach the judgements that get that clarity and certainty as quickly as possible.
“And I certainly do very firmly hope that these matches will go ahead and will go ahead to crowds of supporters.”
Sturgeon was speaking during her update to the Scottish Parliament this afternoon, and was not responding to speculation from south of the Border about the game being moved to Newcastle United’s St James Park in order to ensure a full-house.
England do not have any crowd restrictions, so moving the game to Newcastle looks like an obvious option on a purely sporting level.
“The possibility must surely be explored,” said former Scotland and Lions head coach Ian McGeechan in The Daily Telegraph. “As a player, given the choice of playing in an empty stadium at Murrayfield or a full house of Scots just over the border, I know which I’d have chosen.
“For Scotland and Wales the possibility of playing at St James’ Park or the Ricoh Arena or some other venue would surely be preferable both from a sporting and a financial perspective?
“And there are currently no legal restrictions preventing fans from crossing the border.”
Exeter Chiefs’ Director of Rugby Rob Baxter weighed in when he said: “For the national bodies, their responsibility goes beyond the professional sport.
“It goes right down to grassroots rugby, so if playing the tournament provides a level of income that cancelling it or no crowds doesn’t create, then we’ve got to look at the next best scenario.”
However, such a move to side-step Covid regulations in this county would undoubtedly infuriate the Scottish Government, who allocated a £20m support package to Murrayfield earlier in the pandemic, and who have indicated that rugby is in line for a share of a further £5m package for sport which was announced by Sturgeon today.
Scottish Rugby has been at pains to position itself as leading the way in terms of following and promoting Covid measures and the Newcastle switch would undermine this.
Another issue is that the Scotland versus England match is already a 67,000 sell-out, while St James’ Park has a capacity of 52,000, so allocating tickets would be a logistical nightmare.