Closing the doors but playing the game?

MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, makes some suggestions about how Super League and the RFL should respond if the worst comes to the worst, and football and rugby clubs are forced to play matches behind closed doors.


This Saturday we will see the first game in the history of Super League that will have been played behind closed doors.

The Catalans Dragons will play Leeds Rhinos in a game that should have been played in front of a full house, with wonderful contests to look forward to between Israel Folau and Konrad Hurell in the centres, James Maloney and Luke Gale at halfback and a host of other individual matchups that certainly had whetted my appetite for this game.

So how strange will it be to see it played in front of virtually no one at all, after the French government this week banned sporting events from taking place in front of crowds of more than 1,000?

The Catalans club, rather than trying to decide which 1,000 fans would be privileged to witness the match, decided to play the game with no one, other than the media, sitting or standing in the Stade Gilbert Brutus.

As they have already pointed out, this will cost them a fortune. They tried to get the Rhinos to swap the fixture and play it at Headingley. When that wasn’t possible, they then tried to postpone the match until later in the season. But that was also not supported, either by the Rhinos or Super League.

So the game will go ahead in what no doubt will feel like an eerie atmosphere, in other words no atmosphere at all. It is bound to have a significant, but unforeseen, impact on the performances of the players.

Of course this decision by the French government could be the first of many. The chances are that the Catalans will have to play other games in an empty stadium.

And what about in England? Will the British government decide to follow the example of the French and require matches to be played behind closed doors if the coronavirus appears to be becoming more widespread, which appears certain to happen?

I may be wrong, but I can certainly see it happening, maybe as early as in a week or two’s time.

And what then? Will every Super League and Championship game be played in an empty stadium? Will League 1 games, which are normally played in front of crowds of less than 1,000, be allowed to go ahead as normal? Who knows?

So what contingency plan should Super League and the RFL have to deal with the crisis of the coronavirus? Because crisis it certainly is, going well beyond the bounds of Rugby League.

In my view they should suspend the season, rather than forcing teams to play behind closed doors.

There are at least two reasons for doing that.

First of all, Rugby League games are meant to be played in front of paying spectators, and their absence will make games financially unviable. So why play them just for the sake of doing so?

Secondly, we have to think about health and safety from the point of view of the players.

Rugby League is a contact sport, with players constantly in touch with each other. Those are the circumstances in which the coronavirus is most likely to flourish. Once one player gets the virus, playing Rugby League would be a wonderful way to pass it on to others.

And although the vast majority of Rugby League players probably wouldn’t be seriously threatened by the virus, some of them may have elderly relatives who certainly might be placed in danger if they came into contact with a player carrying the virus.

This may all sound alarmist, and I recognise that. I’m not someone who believes we should be panicking about the coronavirus and I certainly am not impressed by some of the hysterical reporting we have seen.

But that doesn’t alter the fact that we owe a duty of care, not just to the spectators, but to the players and officials as well.

We have already seen a football match between Manchester City and Arsenal postponed tonight because some Arsenal players are self-isolating after coming into contact with someone who was carrying the virus. That may just be the tip of the iceberg for footballers and rugby players. The problem is that at the moment it’s hard to make that judgement.

So if the worst comes to the worst, and we find that the government decides to clamp down on sporting events being played in front of live audiences, my advice to Super League and the other competitions is to close down temporarily and resume when the danger from the virus has past, which will hopefully have happened in a couple of months’ time, although that of course is extremely uncertain.

And doing so would come with the added bonus of doing away with the loop fixtures, which I think are unnecessary to begin with.

It would be a truncated season, but I would hope we would still have a Challenge Cup Final at Wembley in July and a Grand Final at Old Trafford in October.

Hopefully by then the coronavirus will just be an unpleasant memory.

The alternative hardly bears thinking about.

See League Express every week for Martyn Sadler’s ‘Talking Rugby League’ column.