By Paul Jones
The Welsh rugby regions are weighing up whether or not to seek postponements of their festive fixture list after they were ordered to play their matches behind closed doors.
The Scarlets, Ospreys, Cardiff and Dragons are all facing the prospect of having to play their Christmas and New Year matches in empty stadia after the Welsh Government’s decision to ban crowds.
The decision – announced by Welsh economy minister Vaughan Gething late on Monday night – will have a devastating effect on the regions’ finances.
The festive derbies are normally the only matches in their fixtures lists when they can expect close to full houses, with maximum take up on hospitality and other revenues.
To play the games in front of empty stands will cost the four of them hundreds of thousands of pounds, coming on top of the £250,00 it cost both the Scarlets and Cardiff for their disastrous trips to play postponed games in South Africa.
The Ospreys have already seen their clash against the Dragons – scheduled for Boxing Day at the Liberty Stadium – postponed because of 18 positive Covid tests among the home club.
As it stands, Cardiff’s home game against the Scarlets on Boxing Day, plus the Dragons v Cardiff on New Year’s Day and the Scarlets v Ospreys, also on January 1, are scheduled to go ahead, but in front of no fans.
Dragons chairman David Buttress gave an indication of his thinking when he re-tweeted a call for the matches to be postponed.
Please can we postpone the derbies, rather than play behind closed doors?https://t.co/ZoD7XOt2gw
— Cardiff Rugby Fans 💙🖤 (@theArmsPark) December 21, 2021
The tweet, posted by Cardiff Rugby Fans, said: “Please can we postpone the derbies, rather than play behind closed doors?”
The issue for the regions would be how the broadcasters – Premier Sports, S4C and the BBC – would react to requests to postpone matches, rather than play them in empty stadia.
Buttress was clear when he said in relation to the Welsh Government demand for the fan ban, “Nobody should underestimate this.
“It is devastating for professional rugby and sport. We have done everyone to support, comply and drive/support Covid community initiatives.
“I may not be thanked for being frank, but this is horrendous news for us. This is brutal news.”
Scarlets chairman Simon Muderack – whose region will lose bumper gates against the Ospreys (Jan 1) and then the Dragons (Jan 8) – echoed the views of Buttress.
“Bitterly disappointed,” said Muderack. “After the past few weeks we were all looking to bring some festive derby cheer into people’s lives.
“Clearly, people’s safety is paramount. However, the commercial impacts to all of us as clubs is catastrophic without significant further support.”
Bitterly disappointed. After the past few weeks we were all looking to bring some festive derby cheer into people’s lives. Clearly people’s safety is paramount. However, the commercial impacts to all of us as clubs is catastrophic without significant further support
— Simon Muderack (@swmuderack) December 21, 2021
Welsh economy minister Gething said a £3million fund will be in place to “support” clubs and venues, although the detail is yet to be revealed for that assistance.
Gething said: “Sporting events over the Christmas period are one of the big highlights of the year. Unfortunately, the new omicron variant is a significant development in the pandemic and could cause a large number of infections.
“We need to do everything we can to protect people’s health and control the spread of this awful virus.
“Throughout the pandemic we have followed scientific and public health advice to keep people safe. The advice is clear – we need to act now in response to the threat of Omicron. We are giving people as much notice of these decisions as we can.
“Crowds will come back as soon as possible. We want everyone to be here to enjoy their favourite sports.”
Am I missing something here. Not allowed to watch sport in open air stadiums with the ability to socially distance… but can watch the same games on TV in a poorly ventilated crowded Pub/Bar? 🤔
— Sam Hobbs (@Hobbknob) December 21, 2021
But Dragons academy coach Sam Hobbs spoke for many when he tweeted: “Am I missing something here, not allowed to watch sport in open air stadiums with the ability to socially distance… but can watch the same games on TV in a poorly ventilated crowded pub/bar? Seems logical,”.
Wales are due to host Scotland in just seven weeks on February 12 at the Principality Stadium – a match that is scheduled to involve 74,000 fans and create around £4m in takings for the Welsh Rugby Union.
As is stands, that match will now go ahead in an empty stadium although the Welsh Government has said they will continue to assess the restrictions.