Australian Rugby League fans will return to NRL grounds this weekend for the first time since the COVID-19 lockdown began in March.
Groups of up to 50 supporters will be allowed in individual catered corporate areas, which will be regarded like pubs and restaurants, which are now allowed one patron per four square metres in the state of New South Wales.
The ruling only applies to stadia in NSW, where all bar the Queensland teams (Broncos, Cowboys and Titans) and Victoria’s Melbourne Storm are playing their home games until round nine.
The first attendees will be club sponsors, helping cash-strapped clubs shore up valuable sponsorship deals during the pandemic.
“We are going to be treated the same as the pubs and clubs,” ARL Commission Chairman Peter V’landys told the NRL’s website.
“We’re very pleased the government have corrected the anomaly, because this was allowed in pubs, clubs and racecourses but not sports stadiums.
“It’s a good start and our next step, once we’ve done that correctly, is to try to convince government to allow us to have spectators in seated areas from July 1 or shortly afterwards.”
The first fans will return for Thursday’s clash between the Manly Sea Eagles and Brisbane Broncos at Central Coast Stadium, the first of eight games in NSW in Round 5 spread across the Central Coast, Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta and Campbelltown Stadium.
The last supporters to witness an NRL game in the flesh were the 9,137 who filed into Wollongong’s WIN Stadium for Wests Tigers’ 24-14 victory over the St George Illawarra Dragons on March 15.
V’landys remains committed to his target of bringing back larger crowds to the stands by July 1- a plan that was slammed as “absurd and dangerous” by the Australian Medical Association last month.
“In the last seven days, there’s been no community infection [in NSW] whatsoever,” V’landys said on Friday.
“So if the infection rate continues at zero or close to it, then there’s no reason why we couldn’t start on July 1 to seat crowds with the proper biosecurity measures.”
The NRL are drawing up plans for the return of rank-and-file supporters next month, including thermal cameras to check fans’ temperatures, a ticketing system that leaves appropriate distance between seats, extra cleaning of high-contact areas like bathrooms, food and drink delivered to fans’ seats, and arrangements for traffic flow at crowded entry and exit points.
Club members will get priority access to tickets. Demand will outstrip supply, and the idea of ticket ballots has been mooted.
Crowds as large as 15,000 may be able to enter ANZ Stadium. Sydney’s Olympic arena was excluded from the NRL’s stadium plan until round nine, due to its planned knockdown rebuild. But the NSW government has axed that project, leaving the 80,000-seat stadium available to use.
In the meantime, Parramatta’s new Bankwest Stadium will house the largest crowds until the NRL revisits its fixtures beyond round 10.
The one-year-old stadium has 54 corporate suites and 3000 premium seats that will be able to accommodate roughly 1,000 people with social-distancing measures in place.
While a handful of clubs share the Parramatta venue, the fans’ return will cement the Eels’ home-ground advantage. Parra have won eleven and lost only two matches there since they moved in last April.
“We don’t have any fans here at the moment, but that’s one thing that we’re playing for,” Parramatta stand-off Dylan Brown said after Parramatta’s 19-16 win over arch rivals Manly on Saturday.
“They’ll be excited to get back, and we want them back as soon as we can. It’s our fortress, and we love playing here.”