Super Rugby Aotearoa

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has today (Wednesday) said the government is prepared to allow sports fans back into stadiums and arenas, if the country moves to Alert Level 1 next week.

A Cabinet meeting on June 8 is set to discuss further relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions, with Ardern stating the government has a “strong desire” to do this as soon as it is safe.

Alert Level 1 would see all New Zealanders being able to return without restriction to work, school, sports and domestic travel, gathering with as many people as they want. It would also mean the current restrictions for gatherings at stadiums and arenas, currently limited to 100 people, would be lifted.

Ardern (pictured) said today: “At Level 1 all current rules on businesses and services are essentially lifted. Sports and concert stadiums can be sold out.”

Implementation of this change next week would tie in with the launch of New Zealand Rugby’s (NZR’s) new Super Rugby Aotearoa competition. NZR announced last month that five teams – the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders – will feature in the 10-week domestic competition following an announcement that rugby and netball would be able to resume at Level 2 of the alert system.

The new-look competition is due to kick off on June 13 when the Highlanders play the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin, while the Blues will take on the Hurricanes at Eden Park in Auckland on the following day.

All fixtures were due to be held in closed stadia until the government advised an approach to managing mass gatherings in controlled venues. In the wake of today’s announcement, Eden Park CEO Nick Sautner and Dunedin Venues counterpart Terry Davies said they are ready to welcome crowds back to their stadia.

Meanwhile, Ardern said her government is currently working with stadia and ticketing agencies on a “COVID code” designed to grant greater contract tracing at large events. She added: “All gatherings of any size can occur. However, we’re working with ticketing agencies and large scale event organisers on a COVID code, through which contact details are collected so we can keep track of people at large gatherings in the event that we need to follow them up for contact tracing.

“For larger events it is a matter of preparedness for us. We might confident we’re in an environment where we do not have COVID in circulation. But if we have a situation where even one case develops, and it’s found that person had been in attendance at a large event, we always have to be prepared to be able to contact trace successfully.

“This is why we want to work alongside those who organise events, large sporting events, music events and work with ticketing agencies so they have information available for short periods of time to help us with contact tracing.”

Bulgarian First League

The First League, the top tier of club football in Bulgaria, is poised to become the latest European league to allow fans in its stadia, when it resumes on Friday.

Bulgaria’s Health Minister, Kiril Ananiev, has approved plans to resume domestic professional football matches from June 5, with restrictions on attendance numbers for First League games.

COVID-19 led to the suspension of the 2019-20 season on March 13, with 12 rounds of games left to play. The Bulgarian Football Union was initially planning for matches to be played behind closed doors upon resumption, but Ananiev’s statement has changed this.

According to the Sofia Globe newspaper, Ananiev said that First League stadia will be allowed to admit fans, limited to 30% of their capacity with social distancing measures of at least two seats between supporters.

Ludogorets, which has won the league for the past eight seasons, currently leads the 14-team competition with 55 points from 23 matches, nine more than Lokomotiv Plovdiv, Levski Sofia and CSKA Sofia.

Puskás Arena

The Hungarian Football Federation (MLSZ) has made more tickets available for today’s (Wednesday’s) Hungarian Cup final following high demand for the match at the new Puskás Arena.

The Hungarian Cup final is one of the first major events held at the 65,000-seat stadium, which opened in November and was due to host games at UEFA Euro 2020. Nemzeti Bajnokság, the top tier of Hungarian football, on Friday set a first for Europe by returning fans to its stadia and the MLSZ has made more tickets available for today’s cup final between Budapest Honvéd and Mezőkövesd-Zsóry.

An initial allocation of tickets for the lower tier of Puskás Arena sold out, meaning that additional seating sections have been released. The MLSZ yesterday said it is expecting more than 10,000 fans for the match, detailing the COVID-19 measures that will be in place.

These include that fans must leave a gap of three seats between themselves and the next person, while maintaining social distancing of 1.5 metres in communal areas of the stadium.

Jackie Robinson Stadium

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has hit out following reports that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has been using Jackie Robinson Stadium to process protestors arrested  for curfew violations during the ongoing civil unrest started by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The home of UCLA’s baseball team has been utilised as a testing site during COVID-19 and is named in honour of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in the modern Major League Baseball (MLB) area and a notable figurehead for the civil rights movement.

In a letter reported by the Los Angeles Times, dozens of UCLA faculty members said police deliberately crowded protesters arrested in downtown Los Angeles and Westwood into sheriff’s buses and transported them to the stadium, while disregarding COVID-19 protocol.

“The cruel irony that this took place at a location used as a COVID-19 testing site is not lost on those arrested or on us,” the letter read, demanding UCLA end use of the stadium by police.

In a statement, the University said: “We’re troubled by accounts of Jackie Robinson stadium being used as a ‘field jail.’ This was done without UCLA’s knowledge or permission. As lessee of the stadium, we informed local agencies that UCLA will NOT grant permission should there be a request like this in the future.”

Franklin’s Gardens

English Premiership rugby union club Northampton Saints has joined forces with the Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust to deliver maternity care at Franklin’s Gardens stadium during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The club has made several boxes within the Carlsberg Stand available for Northampton General Hospital’s midwives to offer expectant mothers appropriate care.

A total of 15 midwives and support staff are now running clinics at Franklin’s Gardens from Monday to Friday, conducting antenatal checks for women in the first weeks of their pregnancy all the way up to their due date.

Anne Richley, community midwifery matron, said: “We had been working in doctors’ surgeries but understandably GP’s were reluctant to have healthy women walking in there, so for a few weeks we centralised the community maternity service in the Day Surgery Unit in the basement of the hospital.

“Now that Unit is starting up again, which is fantastic, but it meant we had to look for a new venue – and Saints has the perfect space for us, with a number of private rooms now kitted out with everything we need, and people having their temperature taken at reception as they come in.”

LNER Stadium

English League One football club Lincoln City has said it will open the gates to LNER Stadium this summer in an effort to create a public space where people can ‘Take A Break’.

The club said advance booking for the venture will be mandatory, but entry will be free of charge with visitors asked to donate to the Lincoln City Foundation.

The club said in a statement: “Bring your lunch, read a book, listen to your music or simply relax in the surroundings of the spiritual home of the Imps. Social distancing rules must be adhered to at all times and all Imps are reminded they should continue to follow the guidance as set out by the Government.”

In January, Lincoln submitted expansion documents for LNER Stadium, stating that long-term plans to potentially leave, or substantially redevelop, its home since 1895 had yet to be finalised.

Image: Labour NZ