Column: Gradually, fans should be allowed to return

The inability for small crowd attendances to be allowed for the rebooted local rugby competition does undeniably stand in contrast to some of South Africa’s other daily allowances, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Not to be greedy just as live rugby has returned in South Africa, and as good as it’s been to watch local action again, it’s still impossible to watch the new-look competition without at least a semblance of an empty feeling as the players go about their business in massive, crowdless stadiums.

It is the world we live in, and the players will undoubtedly be simply grateful to be back doing what they love – particularly in a year where there were once fears we might not see any rugby at all in 2020.

And yet, there is a cruel sense of irony that you can watch a TV broadcast of a live match (played at an empty stadium), all the while sitting in a restaurant or pub surrounded by people.

I recently did just this, and had a friend raise a surely valid point when he asked something along the lines of: ‘Would I be safer watching here in this restaurant, or as one of a limited number of fans at the stadium if that was allowed?’

And therein lies the rub. Under level-one restrictions, the number of people in any venue must not exceed 50% of its normal capacity. A limit of 250 people applies to certain indoor gatherings, and a maximum limit of 500 people to outdoor gatherings.

Although these stipulations incorporate gatherings such as conferences, meetings, political and social events, it’s puzzling that sports stadiums remain out of bounds.

Put it any way you like, and certainly without taking a serious situation lightly, the contradictions remain perplexing.

While certain venues must not exceed 50% of its normal capacity, I’d venture that most franchises would simply be satisfied if they could see 5% of their stadium capacity allowed.

Surely it would not be unreasonable to allow for a limited number of tickets to be made available to the public, while ensuring the allocation allows for a select few to be spread out across South Africa’s massive open-air stadiums with more than enough social distancing.

To allow even a 100 or 200 fans to gradually return to matches would provide at least some semblance of ‘live’ support for the players, and begin to reintroduce some energy to a currently eerie atmosphere.

Just this past weekend, Stormers captain Siya Kolisi opened up about how tough it was to play in an empty stadium.

‘Even [during the] warm-up, it was awkward,’ he admitted. ‘I know we experienced it during [Super Fan Saturday], but playing here, it’s not the same, honestly.

‘We take it for granted and didn’t understand what it means to us until now. The way we started, normally the crowd would pick us up.

‘We made mistake after mistake and as [coach John Dobson] said, it felt like a loss. It was really tough without the people here today.’

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It’s led to some creative thinking from the franchises, with the Vodacom Bulls for example calling for fans to send voice notes of them clapping and cheering to be used as a replacement for crowd noise. It’s a good effort, but it will never be the same.

As it stands, there is no word as yet when the government might provide approval for fans to slowly start returning to sports stadiums. But surely, and gradually, there is every reason to believe supporters  should be allowed to safely make their presence felt once again in the near future.

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