Ulster set to host return of fans to Irish rugby

Ulster is set to trial the return of fans to Irish professional rugby for its opening match of the 2020-21 Pro14 season on Friday.

Ulster will admit 600 supporters to its 18,211-seat Kingspan Stadium when it faces Italian team Benetton Rugby. The trial to reintroduce supporters follows what Ulster states was a “comprehensive consultation process” with local government, Belfast City Council and the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU).  In total, around 850 people will attend the season opener.

Friday’s game will represent the first pro Irish rugby match attended by fans since the sport shut down in March amid the rise of COVID-19. All 600 tickets will be made available to #TogetherUlster Members only via an online ballot process. Three hundred members will be randomly selected and granted the opportunity to purchase two tickets each.

Friday night’s match will be fully seated, in groups of two, with physically distanced seating available for supporters in Kingspan Stadium’s Grandstand, Memorial Stand and AbbeyAutoline Family Stand. Ulster said the event provides the club with the opportunity to work with supporters to test a safe and manageable return to operations at Kingspan Stadium. Fans will be asked to provide feedback on their experience.

Ulster Rugby CEO, Jonny Petrie, said: “Following a number of very challenging months for us all, I’m encouraged that this weekend will mark the measured return of a limited number of spectators to Kingspan Stadium.

“It seems only fitting that the fans who chose to support us by buying a membership, during what is likely to be one of the most difficult times we will face as a club, will be able to join us in the stands as we kick-off the new Guinness Pro14 season at home.

“This event is the culmination of a considerable amount of planning and preparation from across Ulster Rugby – together with the IRFU, Belfast City Council and local government – to ensure this is a safe and managed return to the Friday night lights. We hope the upcoming match will be the solid foundation on which we can continue to build towards once again being able to all stand up together.”

The cross-border Pro14 league last week announced it would break new ground by introducing Monday Night Rugby to its 2020-21 season. As the schedule was confirmed for the first eight weeks of action, it was announced that the first Monday night game will occur in Round 3 when Munster host Cardiff Blues at Thomond Park on October 26.

In total, 14 Monday night fixtures will take place between Rounds 3 and 8 with scheduling aimed at preventing direct clashes with the extended international calendar. With the finale of the 2020 Six Nations and the new Autumn Nations Cup taking place from October through to early December, the majority of Pro14 fixtures during this time will take place on Sundays and Mondays.