Finally this week will see spectators permitted to return to a rugby union ground in the UK. A few hundred souls will be allowed into Murrayfield to watch Edinburgh play Glasgow Warriors on Friday, a symbolic moment that deserves more than cheap jokes about it being a bigger crowd than normal. Live professional rugby without fans is like a full English consisting solely of toast.
On TV it is possible to make the spectacle look and sound half-decent by piping in suitable sound effects and directing the cameras away from the empty seats. Within the stadium there are basically just two settings: a deafening silence that would bother even Simon & Garfunkel or the oval-ball equivalent of an excitable Pakistan slip cordon. To be able to hear the tap of press-box keyboards during a top-level match is both eerie and ever so slightly sad.
Everyone knows the games have to be played to recoup broadcasting revenue, and there is an element of being grateful for small mercies. Thanks, too, to all the press officers who have worked hard to ensure reporters could gain access. That said, the last few days have been sobering. Without Sid and Doris Bonkers back in their seats, clutching their pies and yelling at the distant gladiators, there is more passion to be found in separate bedrooms. Sitting in a deserted ground, awaiting the post-match thoughts of the coaches via Zoom from the other side of the pitch, has been to glimpse a nightmarish dystopian future.
Thankfully there have been exceptions, with Sale v Exeter on Friday among them. It has to be a good game to nourish the soul in an echoing AJ Bell Stadium, with the hush broken only by the swish of traffic crossing the Irlam bridge. Shrewdly, Sale had also chosen to stick on a Mancunian greatest hits selection featuring a tuneful medley of Joy Division, New Order and the Smiths, although Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now would have better reflected the sport’s parlous financial state.
All too conspicuous by its absence, though, has been the emotional energy from the stands, so integral to the overall rugby experience. It is a credit to all the players that they have somehow generated enough of it to produce any kind of televisual spectacle. As Exeter’s Rob Baxter rightly observed after his side’s first home game back, it was a “horrible” experience not being surrounded by the usual trappings of a major sporting event. “It was fantastic to get the sport back on TV but did it feel like a great day at Sandy Park? Not really,” he said.
The better sides have had to learn how to rise above it all. When Exeter go to Bristol on Tuesday take a closer look at their players as they run out. Wherever they take the field they do so through a human tunnel of their own reserves, all whooping and encouraging their team-mates as they trot past. In a packed stadium their exhortations are drowned out by the roars of the crowd; now its value is becoming ever more apparent. Want to know which side are losing without looking at the scoreboard? Just check out which team are making the least noise.
It is also possible the shape of games is being influenced by the absence of paying fans. Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall accepted it may have been among the reasons why his side eased off slightly against Harlequins in the last quarter on Saturday. Sale supporters, meanwhile, would surely have gone bananas at the award of 23 penalties against their team during Friday’s 32-22 defeat.
Would the referee, Tom Foley, have awarded so many normally? Coincidence or not, four of the weekend’s six Premiership fixtures were won by the away team.
The bottom line, regardless, is that rugby needs supporters back in the same way a squirrel needs winter nuts. Barring any worsening of the Covid-19 picture, some trial runs may be permitted as early as next month, with Bristol and Sale among those ready and willing. “We have been approached by the Rugby Football Union and Premiership Rugby about doing a trial,” said Steve Diamond, Sale’s director of rugby. “We are willing to do that and the stadium are willing to do that. As soon as we can get the all-clear we’ll be taking part in that trial, definitely.”
One thing is for sure: no one in rugby will ever whinge again about having to queue to enter a rugby stadium. Even the bladdered idiots who repeatedly rise from their Twickenham seats mid-game to visit the toilet may temporarily find their neighbours more understanding. Without a semblance of shared passion or off-field emotion, rugby is rapidly stripped of its soul. The players are bravely soldiering on but they need the cavalry back as soon as possible.