It's a landmark return for spectators as optimistic mascots look on from afar... For now

BIG MATCH nerves are not unusual. When Saracens or Exeter come to town, this bunch from Harlequins are used to taking the pitch as flames lick the sky and music blares. They normally have their game faces on… And their paws and their furry legs.

This Saturday will be a happy day, but an admittedly odd one for the Harlequins mascots.

The Stoop becomes the first ground in the Gallagher Premiership to welcome fans back from Covid exile, as part of a government pilot scheme. Up to 3,500 Quins season ticket members will be allowed in for the match against Bath. It’s a step back towards normality – a very welcome one – and while they are buzzing to see the faithful return in some part, Quins’ sleuth of bears cannot help but daydream about their own return.

“The bears will be watching on the sofa with a pint!” says Alistair Brown with a sly smile. The actor, who also does research for quiz shows, first wore the costume of Harley Bear in 2016.

“I’ve followed the rugby on TV since it’s been back on. Obviously they’re elite athletes, players and professionals but apart from a couple of games, there hasn’t been that sort of ebb and flow – when a team has got ahead, the others may find it difficult to come back. To bring crowds back in you get the joy of being (part of a) crowd, to be closer to people that are supporting the same team or there’s a lovely friendly rivalry and not support their team.

Related: Plans for up to 20,000 fans at England v Barbarians

“All we do is hopefully add to that experience of the day. I think everyone’s so ready for sports and being in stadiums and I think that (what we have this weekend) probably will be enough, certainly initially.”

Fans return to Harlequins as mascots watch from home

Recent sight: Marcus Smith in an empty stadium (Getty Images)

Here jumps in Emily Sawbridge – possibly better known to supporters as Emily Bear. A Quins fan since she was nine, she is as excited as anyone to see fans coming back and understands the reasons why the mascots cannot be there, interacting with supporters, yet. But understandably, she is keen to return to the Stoop too.

“We’re gonna miss it, not being there,” personal trainer Sawbridge begins. “I definitely have missed it. And as life goes on you still want to keep your schedule open, to carry on doing this role because it is just so much fun – it’s going to be difficult watching it and not seeing us there. People might not know, if people are expecting to see us. Unfortunately, it’s just not time for that.

“But I really hope soon that we can go back, even if we can’t be in direct contact, like not high-fiving (fans). It’d still be great just to have the bears there because it shows the support and just represents the club really.”

Talking to the pair, you realise how full-on a day in furs can be.

Beginning hours before the gates open, they are briefed on what the plan is for the day, which special events are on, what key timings will be. The talent put their heads together to discuss a rough plan. Then 20 minutes before the entrances are flung open, they can be seen hopping around with one leg in, asking for help with a zip, fumbling paws.

Life in the costume can be cumbersome. It’s hot. No one can hear you. So your actions have to be deliberate.

Fans return to Harlequins as mascots watch from home

Bear essentials: Young fans with Emily and Harley (Getty Images)

At the very start of her life as a bear, Sawbridge was pulled aside by her manager to be told that placing a coquettish hand on the hip while standing side-on, tilting and flicking the head, was not really in keeping with the character Quins wanted to put out. Their Emily is powerful, she was told, a no-nonsense member of the team.

They will mingle, they will cajole, trying to drag fans to stalls and attractions, every so often tagging out to get a breather. They are on the pitch before the game and nip in and out, imploring roars when they can. They hope they have a keen sense of the mood of a crowd, and when something needs to be done – anything – they can pull out a drum or play up their character.

It is an unusual responsibility, that of the mascot. It’s live action role play meets hype man for a stadium gig. So how do you get into it?

“My background’s in theatre and acting but I’m also a massive sports fan, and of rugby,” Brown begins of his way in. “I was sort of between jobs and saw an advert on Quins’ website saying they were looking for mascots. I applied and was called in for an interview.

“I was taken up to one of the boxes at the Stoop and I’d taken in these various characters. I was asked to prepare sort of a little gesture for both Harley and Charlie (two of the bears) and do a bit of a biography about what I thought they were like. And then I had to do a couple of minutes of a piece that I prepared, whether it was a talent or something like that.

“With that I did this sort of take on the haka, but I’d set it to the song the Mighty Quinn. Now, I had expected the suit to come out and they said, ‘Oh, actually, we’re a bit cramped for space. Can you just do it here without the suit?’ So there I was, in an executive box at Quins, just doing this dance for two people. And it obviously worked!”

Related: What would England’s North v South teams be?

It was more direct for Sawbridge, who was in college and looking for a peripheral way into part-time work in sport in 2018. With supporting the women’s game a key point for the side, it all clicked into place.

Brown details the incredible buzz you can get after a vital win, out there with the players; juxtaposing that with the instants after the game when you peel off the costume and confidently head out towards the crowd who simply have no idea who you are. But for him, the special moments are when it’s deep into the game and there’s a scrum on the 5m line and you get a chant going. Whipping up a once-silent crowd feels special.

Fans return to Harlequins as mascots watch from home

Fan favourite: Chris Robshaw with Quins supporters, 2019 (Getty Images)

Sawbridge adds of theie role: “For the kids it’s the closest they might get to being in contact with a member of the team. Lots of kids desire to get a high-five off Chris Robshaw or meet Danny Care, but it’s not always possible. However, when they meet Harley, Charlie and Emily it’s almost like that step closer to actually get in a picture with a member of the team.

“It’s really so nice when you make a kid’s day, or when you get pictures of people and they’re all smiles. That is my sign of a good day, when you made so many people smile, even if it’s not the best circumstances with the game. Yeah, just keeping that positive energy.”

Having exclusively Quins-minded fans back may tip the scales against Bath. The bears are certainly hopeful. You have to take your furry head off to them, keeping the energy up from afar.

Can’t get to the shops? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.