Ken Borland

By Ken Borland

Journalist


Lions tour: Thousands could die if we allowed fans back

"But if the FNB Stadium has capacity of 90,000, that means 45,000 people and how do we ensure that does not become a super-spreader event?”


  Tens of thousands of people will probably die tragically of Covid in India over the next week, which should give all South African sports fans pause to think as we clamour for the return of spectators to stadiums. The daily death toll from the pandemic climbed to over 3,600 in India this week, with at least 300,000 positive tests per day. Having been to India three times, it is the country that most reminds me of our poorer communities, the places at the wrong end of the most unequal society in the world, and I cannot but imagine what…

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Tens of thousands of people will probably die tragically of Covid in India over the next week, which should give all South African sports fans pause to think as we clamour for the return of spectators to stadiums.

The daily death toll from the pandemic climbed to over 3,600 in India this week, with at least 300,000 positive tests per day.

Having been to India three times, it is the country that most reminds me of our poorer communities, the places at the wrong end of the most unequal society in the world, and I cannot but imagine what might happen here if another wave of Covid strikes during winter.

The sudden resurgence of Covid in India has been partly attributed to the government allowing a series of mass nationalistic or religious gatherings, that rapidly became super-spreader events in the populous country.

So one can understand government’s caution when it comes to allowing spectators back into stadiums for rugby or football or any other sporting event. I thought Sports Minister Nathi Mthethwa gave a very reasonable explanation on Friday for why there has been no date set yet for the return of fans.

“In terms of fans, we have to look at the codes’ plans from a health perspective. It’s not up to the Minister of Sport, we are not going to decide as individual departments. The National Command Council weekly meeting guides society as a whole, not just one aspect. Our medical advisors are telling us that between May and July there is the possibility of a third wave,” Mthethwa said.

“They say we are facing a storm and we can’t just kill people by allowing them back into stadiums. So each sport has to put together a plan. For example rugby has proposed 50% capacity for the British and Irish Lions tour, which will be looked into.

“But if the FNB Stadium has capacity of 90,000, that means 45,000 people and how do we ensure that does not become a super-spreader event?”

Of course all rugby fans want crowds to be able to watch the Lions matches and recreate the sort of atmosphere that electrified proceedings when Tendai Mtawarira began dismantling the legendary Phil Vickery in the scrums at Kings Park or when Jaque Fourie squeezed over for his improbable try at Loftus Versfeld the last time Britain and Ireland’s finest toured here in 2009.

But is it worth tens of thousands of people dying? Even though SA Rugby’s budget will take a severe knock without crowds, it is not worth mass mortalities.

I would postulate that once spectators are allowed at sporting events again, they will return in their flocks because of how long they have been starved of live action. Perhaps club rugby, generally played in wide open areas, would be a good place to start safely bringing crowds back?

And club rugby will be returning shortly.

It is a level of the game that has been treated quite curtly by some professional coaches, but it was pleasing to hear Bulls coach Jake White, ever the traditionalist, say he will be keeping an eye on club rugby in the Pretoria region to see if there are any hidden gems who have the aptitude for franchise rugby.

He has shown his backing for club rugby by allocating each of his 45 contracted professional players to a club and, if they are not selected for the Bulls, they are expected to play for their clubs (although this won’t apply to the Springboks).

White has made a rule that players will wear their club socks once a week at Bulls training and once a month they will come to Loftus Versfeld in their club kit, as well as actually go to their clubs periodically to help with training or social functions.

Resurrecting club rugby as a factory for the professional game would be a great gift for rugby in this country.

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