DOMINIC McKAY, the Chief Operating Officer of Scottish Rugby, has revealed that there will be no spectators allowed at next weekend’s PRO14 play-off clash between Edinburgh and Ulster at Murrayfield, because there will not be enough time to collect and analyse the data from this evening’s [Friday] test event at the same venue.
However, he is hopeful that if all goes well and crowd sizes can be increased steadily over the next two and a half months, it will be possible to welcome crowds of up to 20,000 to the national stadium during Scotland’s Autumn Test schedule. Gregor Townsend’s side have a friendly against Georgia on 24th October, and then further home matches against France and hopefully Japan (if they are able to travel) as part of the proposed Eight Nations tournament.
Edinburgh took on Glasgow in front of 700 spectators tonight in the first rugby match in the UK, and the first sporting event of any sort in Scotland, to be played in front of a crowd since mid-March. It was a welcome and significant step in the right direction, but McKay explained that getting the fans safely in and out of the venue was just the initial part of the experiment. Now it is a waiting game for the outcome to be revealed.
“This pilot event is the key focus for the organisation and for the government, so we’ll get that done, we’ll reflect on that together with the government and the transport providers and the various stakeholders, and then make a plan for the next event that we’ll have at Murrayfield,” said McKay.
“It will not be the Edinburgh-Ulster game, unfortunately, because we’ll need a couple of weeks to reflect on that. And that’s right and proper, and that’s what we agreed with the government. So, we’ll get the learnings and decide what the next event is, but unfortunately the Edinburgh-Ulster game just comes a bit too soon.
“What we’re planning on is once we get to 14th September, the current government road map suggests that events can restart and begin to reopen,” he continued. “And at that point you’ll have got your reflections from any pilot events, so anything after 14th September is a natural time for us to think about getting some crowds back.
“We’re only using one part of the stadium tonight – the East Stand – and we’re socially distancing at a maximum scale of two metres. That’s beyond what is required under the Scottish and UK grounds recommendations.
“So, it’s possible when we get to the Autumn Tests, subject to the government’s road map and subject to the pandemic in Scotland, that we can get to 15-20,000 for those games in November. But we’ve got to make sure that our supporters follow the guidance, which gives us a road map to gradually build those crowds up. You can imagine getting to those autumn tests with bigger crowds – but it will certainly be within that social distancing environment.”
A big responsibility
McKay was at pains to stress how seriously Scottish Rugby was taking the responsibility of hosting tonight’s test event. Celtic had hoped to have a similar pilot for their Scottish Premiership football clash against Motherwell on Sunday, but their proposal was knocked back earlier this week.
The fact that both Celtic and Aberdeen players have had high-profile lapses in terms of social distancing and travel restrictions may not have helped football’s case, but other more practical considerations will have been just as important, if not more important.
“We’re specifically making the point to the government that a [crowd] figure is secondary,” said McKay. “The most important thing is you’ve got the right mitigation for that venue, and we’re fortunate with Murrayfield in that you’ve got the ability to walk to your seat from outside without going inside at any point.
“So, uniquely, Murrayfield is in a very good place to try to get larger crowds back when we can do that.”
Another factor which will have played in rugby’s favour is that the Scottish Government only had to deal with one organisation during the planning and execution of this test event, because the stadium and both competing teams are owned by the SRU. A football match, by contrast, would involve dealing with several more autonomous organisations, including the two clubs, the SPFL and the SFA.
“We’ve worked very closely with football, with Celtic, with the SFA and the SPFL,” said McKay. “In fact, we’ve actually shared our whole plan, which they’ve really appreciated.
“We’re proud that we get to go first. But this isn’t about a rugby event – it’s just an event that happens to be rugby.
“We will share those learnings with football and it will be great for the sports industry to resume. Somebody needs to go first – and we’re proud to do that.”