We report from an empty stadium as the top flight returns with Harlequins v Sale
What it’s like to watch a Gallagher Premiership match behind closed doors
The Gallagher Premiership didn’t exactly restart with a bang, but there were a few claps on the sidelines and wallops in the tackle as Harlequins beat Sale 16-10 at the Stoop.
It was a disjointed, error-strewn affair – somewhat expected after a five-month hiatus – and if supporters had been allowed in, I doubt they would have been enthralled by the on-pitch offerings, but the good news is that Premiership rugby is back.
Quins got the all-important win, going against the pre-Covid formbook, and more results like that should ensure the race for play-off places is interesting.
So how did the experience compare to a normal league fixture? It was wildly different!
For a start there was the walk into the stadium – no hubbub of fans milling around outside the gates, no riot of colour of replica shirts and hats and so on.
To collect my media accreditation I had to have my temperature checked before signing in with a QR code. It almost felt like I was arriving at the doctor’s surgery rather than a rugby match. That medicinal feeling was only emphasised at the sight of the post protectors and flags being sprayed with disinfectant at half-time.
With social distancing in operation, Rugby World had been moved from the regular press box to further along in the back of the stand. The view may not have been as good, especially of Scott Baldwin’s try at the other end of the pitch, but it was more spacious, with a whole table to myself and Stuart Barnes at the adjacent desk to offer tactical insights. Look for the positives!
The stadium itself almost felt larger with no fans, just media, broadcasters and logistical personnel in attendance alongside the teams. The quietness hit home too, at least until the players came out to warm up. With that came a sudden cacophony of noise, calls being yelled and motivational words being spoken.
That was topped off by the stadium announcer going through the team sheets, although quite who he was sharing the names with I’m not quite sure. The volume only dimmed as the players retreated to the dressing room to change into their match shirts.
The pre-match activity involved a minute’s silence for those who have lost their lives during the pandemic, a tribute to the country’s key workers and the clubs’ support of the Black Lives Matter message – Harlequins formed a circle and took a knee while Sale wore T-shirts emblazoned with the message ‘Rugby Against Racism’.
Then the cacophony returned once the first whistle blew. ‘Robbo’, ‘Nate’, ‘Ashy’ – just some of the nicknames shouted by Quins in the first half. Applause came from the benches in response to a positive act by a player. Any breaks in play resulted in music being blared out. Again, I’m not sure for whose benefit. Same for the giant flames turned on around the outside of the pitch whenever points were scored.
For all the noise generated on the field and through the loud speakers, it couldn’t replicate the atmosphere that would be generated by nearly 15,000 spectators usually crammed into the multicoloured seats. And with that intensity lacking off the pitch, so it was on it.
Obviously errors were to be expected after five months without a game; teams are rusty. On top of that the penalty count was high, the strict breakdown interpretations no doubt contributing, so it was hard for teams to gain momentum. The lack of a crowd also meant there was no external colour or noise to distract you from noticing just how many breaks in play there are.
There was an overriding feeling that the intensity was lower than normal, particularly in the first half. That’s not to say physicality was lacking but there just didn’t seem the same vigour to the match. Perhaps we underestimate how big a motivator crowds can be, but then again not every top-flight match is a cracker even when supporters are permitted to attend.
Things did pick up in the second half, there was more urgency to deliver a result, and hearing the communication from the teams added another level of interest.
It will take time to adapt to this new experience, for all involved in the sport, but rugby is back. The same, but different.
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