LOCKOUT: Coronavirus forces rugby behind closed doors next week but fans welcome at weekend

Super Rugby
Rugbycomau
by Beth Newman and Emma Greenwood

UPDATE: Australian Super Rugby matches will go ahead as planned this weekend but fans will be locked out from next week in response to the growing coronavirus crisis.

Rugby Australia confirmed on Friday afternoon three Super Rugby and two Super W matches would go ahead as planned, with fans welcome to attend despite the Australian Government advising against non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people from Monday.

The Reds will host the Bulls at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday, with thousands of fans expected, with the match the second leg of a double-header following the Sunwolves-Crusaders game - a clash already relocated from Japan due to the spread of coronavirus in that country.

The Brumbies and Waratahs will also play on Sunday in Canberra, following the Brumbies-Reds Super W match, while the Waratahs women will take on RugbyWA in a Super W match at Sydney Uni on Saturday.

But all Super Rugby and Super W matches beyond that will be played at closed venues, a decision agreed on during a teleconference between Rugby Australia, the Rugby Union Players Association (RUPA) and the Super Rugby clubs on Friday.

Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle said it was a position no one in the game had wanted to be in.

"But we have made this decision in line with the Government response to this ongoing global health issue and in the best interests of our players, members and fans," Castle said.

“The Prime Minister made it clear in his address to the media this afternoon that the Government’s advice is a staged response to this issue and that by Monday the next stage of their response is to advise against non-essential large gatherings.

“We are confident from this advice that there is no significant or imminent health risk to our athletes or fans for the weekend’s matches. At all times, any decision we make is with the health and welfare of those people front of mind."

While some events have been cancelled or forced behind closed doors already, Suncorp Stadium officials released a statement on Friday to say their weekend events, including the Super Rugby double-header on Saturday and Friday night's A-League match would go ahead as planned, with fans welcome.

Reds coach Brad Thorn said his team's focus was on beating the Bulls on Saturday and would remain on winning when matches went behind closed doors.

"But it'd be nice to have our fans,” he said.

"We've had four away games and it'd be nice to have our crowd there cheering us on and bringing that pressure as well.

"We've done a lot of work around connecting with our supporters, going around the state, had trial games in country areas and it's been really important to us.

"It would be very disappointing not to have fans there but there's a global situation and that's just what it is and so be it. It's around health and (other) people are in control of that, it's not in my hands.”

Meanwhile, Sunday morning's Jaguares-Highlanders match will be the first Super Rugby fixture to be played behind closed doors because of coronavirus.

The Argentinian side announced on Friday morning (AEDT) that the match would be played without any spectators and offered refunds to anyone planning to attend.

"In view of the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread in Argentina, we inform that the match between Jaguares and Highlanders will be held as a closed-door event at Jose Amalfitani Stadium, in accordance with the measure taken by the Government of the City of Buenos Aires which includes all mass events," the statement read.

"We assume our responsibility as organisers in the face of a public health issue that is threatening society as a whole."

SANZAAR issued a statement on Friday morning confirming that the match would be closed to the public but that the remainder of round seven would proceed as planned.

SANZAAR CEO Andy Marinos said they were prepared for some impact on the competition.

"Super Rugby is an international cross-border competition and with the global outbreak of the coronavirus in recent weeks we always knew that unfortunately at some stage there would be an effect on the tournament," he said in a statement.

"We have been planning for such contingencies and have been cognizant of all government and health authority directives issued within their respective territories.

"The SANZAAR Board and tournament management will continue to monitor health authority and government directives on the virus in all of our stakeholder territories.

"We will also be working with the UAR and Buenos Aires City Government to determine the future requirements around the Jaguares matches in Buenos Aires against the Stormers on 21 March and Rebels on 4 April."

"Apart from the match in Buenos Aires on Saturday, all other matches will continue as normal for Round 7 (March 13-15)."

All of SANZAAR's competing countries have reported cases of coronavirus, with Australia at the top of the list with 122 confirmed cases as of Match 12.

New Zealand has just five confirmed cases and South Africa has 13 total confirmed cases.

Argentina has reported 19 confirmed cases, all of which have been brought in from overseas.

Sporting events around the world have been affected by the spread of the virus and rugby is well and truly among the sports impacted.

Also on Friday, Cricket Australia confirmed it would close the doors of upcoming ODI matches against New Zealand, in a series set to start on Friday.

Melbourne's Formula One Grand Prix was also cancelled late on Friday.

EARLIER

On Thursday afternoon, the NBA announced a decision to suspend its matches until further notice after a Utah Jazz player tested positive to COVID-19.

While there is no suggestion a Super Rugby player has tested positive, SANZAAR and Rugby Australia are taking a host of precautions to try and ensure things stay that way.

The Waratahs have had a coronavirus scare this week, with one Super W player self-isolating and being tested for COVID-19 before being cleared late on Thursday.

A spectator at AAMI Park's Rebels-Lions clash was also confirmed to have tested positive in the days after that match.

Before Friday morning's Jaguares decision, the Sunwolves had already been forced to relocate two of their home games, effectively putting them on a six-week road trip.

The Sunwolves have had a disrupted season this season. Photo: Getty ImagesThe Japanese team play their three upcoming matches in Australia before a scheduled home game against the Reds on April 5.

That Reds clash is widely expected to be relocated with travel to Japan and the ability to hold major events in the country restricted due to coronavirus.

Both the NRL and AFL have publicly discussed the need to consider playing matches behind closed doors to minimise the spread of the virus in Australia.

Fox Footy, one of the AFL's key broadcasters, have also put a stop to interstate travel for their commentators, who will instead call games out of their Melbourne studio in coming weeks.

Rugby Australia said they and SANZAAR were regularly monitoring the situation and said in a statement on Wednesday evening that they would "continue to assess the match environment" when it came to the decision of closing the doors to spectators or other limitations.

Waratahs coach Rob Penney said he would be comfortable with his team's matches being played in empty arenas if it meant that the wider community was safer for ti.

"It's still on telly and I'm a massive believer that it doesn't matter who you play for or who you play against really as an athlete, you've got pride in your own performance," he said.

"It doesn't matter if nobody's watching or the cameraman's watching, somebody will be watching you so if you've got real pride in your performance if there was an occasion where we had to play in front of an empty stadium, so be it.

"But for the game's sake and for the sake of the community and everybody in it, we just have to do the right thing by the administrators and what they deem to be the most positive thing given these difficult circumstances."

Super Rugby teams are being regularly briefed on the coronavirus situation and players are routinely monitored for symptoms of any kind of illness.

Penney said the Waratahs were doing their best to plan for any scenario with so many questions around upcoming fixtures.

"You go through the what ifs but you always have your main plan and your true north and you're heading in that direction," he said.

"You're going through different scenarios that may unfold.

"We've had the medical staff in today talking about potential of changes of travel and if, for example, SANZAAR decide to make some decisions around the competition what that might do to us.

"Really, we have to be reactionary, it's just making sure that we've got our ducks in a row if something does happen and I'm pretty sure we have and not being distracted or concerned by it because there's nothing we can control either."

The Rebels are the next team scheduled to travel beyond New Zealand, with their South Africa tour to begin next week with clashes against the Stormers and Jaguares.

NSW's South African matches come in early April, while the Reds have already done their South Africa trip earlier this year.

They are set to travel to Africa at the end of the month, for matches against the Stormers and the Sharks but it is unclear what plans are for that tour.