RFU wants physical distancing rules eased


Twickenham Stadium - RFU June 2020 Image: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) is planning to persuade the Government to reduce its physical distancing rule from two meters to one, calculating that the current stipulation would cost it £12m if crowds were allowed back for the four November internationals at Twickenham in UK.

The Rugby Football Union is the governing body for rugby union in England.

Britain, Spain and Ireland are among the few countries who are insisting that two meters distance should be maintained as part of the move to arrest the spread of fatal coronavirus. However, the Rugby Football Union Chief Executive, Bill Sweeney, holds the view that it would reduce the capacity at Twickenham to less than 10,000 if the two meters distance rule is followed.

“If you are using two meters, you are talking about a four-meter distanced safe space. With one, it is one meter all round which has the effect of increasing capacity four-fold. If you use two meters in an 80,000-seater stadium and factor in traffic flow, such as someone wanting to use the toilet without going past someone and touching them, it reduces your capacity to between 9,000 and 9,500,” Sweeney pointed out to prove his point.

“I was surprised, not thinking it would be that low. With one meter, which is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidance, you get close to 40,000, and we would like it to come down to that by the autumn. We would not increase the stadium capacity at the risk of safety, nor do anything contrary to Government guidelines, but we want clarity on whether the two-meter rule is absolutely essential or is one meter possible,” he further remarked.

England is scheduled to play New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and Australia. Speaking strictly in financial terms, Sweeney explained, “It depends on who you have coming and ticket pricing. It is probably worth in the region of £3m a game and I believe we would be able to open catering facilities, as long as they were out of doors.”

It is a time when even the governing bodies in the world that has deep pockets will need every pound they can harvest once rugby resumes. The pecuniary pressure which has been felt by every union and professional club throughout the game has focused efforts on organizing a global calendar to align the seasons in the north and south and remove overlaps between Test and club rugby.

More progress has been made in the past two months than in the previous 20 years and a working group, which includes Sweeney among its six officials, has drawn plans that could mean change coming as early as next season, including one that would shift the Six Nations to March and April and played at the same time as the Rugby Championship, with the professional leagues in Europe starting in January.

The Six Nations Championship is an annual international men’s rugby union competition between the teams of England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales.

“The timing of the Six Nations is part of the conversation around the global calendar. If agreement can be reached as part of finishing off the 2019-20 seasons and then moving into the new campaign and it was the one landed on by everybody, it would be possible. It has to be tailored to the needs of each individual union,” Sweeney maintained.

This would mean professional rugby would be played in Europe through the summer months, with players resting in December, denying clubs Christmas takings. It would also mean the Lions tour to South Africa next year moving from July and August to October, leaving 19,000 supporters who have paid deposits for the trip having to rearrange holidays.

“It is a massive factor. The sales for the tour have been the most robust ever, but you cannot have a conversation about the global calendar and not include the Lions. Next year’s tour has been looked at, along with the one in 2025, but it would be a logistical challenge with so many fans having committed themselves,” Sweeney added.

He was amazed that Premiership Rugby had not bothered to inquire whether Twickenham would be available when the league season resumes in August and one or two grounds are used to stage the matches, saying it would be available, but the eight clubs who have offered their stadiums have done so on the basis there will be no fee involved.

Sweeney also revealed the Rugby Football Union had a contingency plan in hand should a second wave of the fatal respiratory disease lead to another lockdown – “We do not refer to it too often. There would be tremendous damage for all of us; we would all be in a different world and it would not be very pleasant. We would survive it, but none of us wants to see that occurring.”

Stadia best option

According to Twickenham Stadium, stadia venues could provide a ready-made option for event organizers looking to implement social-distancing measures for their delegates. The home of England Rugby has released its new regulations to hold safe events as well as keep its delegates safe and believes that the natural flow of these venues, coupled with the size and the abundance of smaller spaces, allows event organizers more options.

Twickenham Stadium is a rugby union stadium in Twickenham, southwest London, England. Owned by the governing body of rugby union in England, the Rugby Football Union, the stadium hosts home test matches for the England national rugby union team.

As part of its guidelines, Twickenham Stadium is introducing audience traffic and flow management, with entry and exit areas devoted to guests, on a smaller scale to its match day operations. The stadium is also introducing ‘wave-based’ catering and staggered start, finish and break times, to make certain that delegates can stay socially distanced, and that different meetings around the stadium are kept apart. Apart from this, increased access to the stadium bowl is being allowed by the venue so as to provide event planners more outside space options.

Nils Braude, Managing Director, Twickenham Experience, stated, “This is something we have a lot of experience of during match days, from access to the stadium via car or public transport, to the management of people around the venue. We have multiple entrances and exits to different stands and floors so people can be kept separate. We can also get delegates moving in the same direction within the stadia, meaning distancing is easier for rest rooms, reception and catering.”

The stadium is also upweighting its digital meeting capabilities to meet the increase in hybrid meetings as well as those with a large ‘out-of-room’ audience.

Braude added, “We’re seeing a number of planners looking to break up a bigger meeting into a series of smaller rooms, linked together digitally. Again, this is where stadia can really help, we have lots of small rooms in our hospitality suites, all with screens and AV that can link easily to a central display.”

Concurring with Braude, Jon Davies, Managing Director, Levy UK, remarked, “The nature of stadium-based hospitality, and its design, has always been around getting people fed quickly and safely, managing the flow of crowds in a relatively small amount of space. These skills are very easily transferable to hygiene safe food and food service, something that should give event organizers and their delegates added confidence for their next events.”

Debbie Rigney, Marketing & PR Manager, Stadium Experience, put in, “Stadium venues really are the ideal choice for all events, particularly during these unprecedented times. The expanse of space these venues boast make maintaining the social distancing measures more possible than many more traditional venues. Stadium staffs are also experts at adapting their spaces from meeting matchday requirements to catering for the next bespoke event. Many stadium venues are happy to explore and customize a range of options that might work, including linking into virtual opportunities across rooms, stands or even venues. It’s also worth noting that stadium venues have many smaller spaces available for hire such as prestigious executive boxes with stunning pitch views and away from other visitors if required.”

Twickenham is sharing its operational procedures with all event planners, and is also making additional information available to delegates wishing to attend events at the stadium, in order to give both event planners and their delegates the confidence of holding an event at the home of England Rugby.

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