Bath revises stadium plan, Harlequins seek COVID-19 certification trial

Bath Rugby has made a significant change to its plans for a new stadium, while fellow Premiership rugby union club Harlequins has said it is collaborating with healthcare app myGP to test a new COVID-19 certification tool.

Bath today (Wednesday) provided an update on the club’s stadium project, nearly a year on from when it put the scheme on hold. In May 2020, Bath Rugby paused work on the ‘Stadium for Bath’ in response to the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The club was due to submit plans for the 18,000-seat stadium last year and had targeted a completion date of summer 2022 for its new home. Today’s update has seen the club announce that plans to include a public car park underneath the new stadium have now been scrapped.

Bath has previously claimed the 550-space car park was a key part of its development plans, protecting the riverside pitch from flooding and aiding the financial sustainability of the project. However, critics had questioned how this could be delivered inside the city’s new clean air zone after the local council had declared a climate emergency.

Bath said today: “The raising of the pitch in previous designs created the space for a public car park much like the adjacent parking under the Leisure Centre, with the provision of parking at the Rec compensating for the loss of other city-centre parking sites allocated for development and contributing to the financial sustainability of the development. 

“During this period of reflection we have identified a satisfactory design solution to mitigate long-term challenges relating to flood risks and the water table which do not require the full raising of the pitch. 

“The world has changed over the course of the pandemic. We no longer believe it is appropriate to base the sustainability of the stadium and the club on car parking. We will therefore not be including an under-pitch car park in future proposals for redevelopment at the Rec.”

The Stadium for Bath is due to be built on the same site as the Recreation Ground, which has been the club’s home since 1894. The Rec has featured temporary stands for the last 15 years to bump its capacity up to 14,500, and each year the club must reapply for permission to retain them.

Plans for the new stadium were first discussed in 2017, and Bath has faced the significant challenge of delivering a venue in what is a World Heritage Site. In October, Bath’s ambitious plans suffered a legal blow after a ruling from Bristol High Court on a historic restrictive covenant on the land.

The judge ruled against the club’s lawyers who had legally challenged a historic covenant blocking development of the current Rec site if there would be ‘nuisance’ caused. Bath Rugby’s legal team claim that the covenant is “unenforceable” and therefore invalid.

Bath added today: “In terms of next steps, the club has been granted leave on all grounds of appeal in relation to a recent judgment regarding the 1922 Covenants. Bath Recreation Limited, our landlord, has also been granted permission to join the appeal proceedings. 

“A successful appeal is important for Bath Recreation Limited’s future as operations could be impacted in relation to hosting events, and in other matters such as the future of the Leisure Centre. The appeal hearing is due to be heard in Autumn 2021.  

“In the meantime, the club will continue to operate its temporary stadium facilities at the Recreation Ground. The constraints at the site are unique in professional elite sport and operating the temporary stadium facilities costs the club c. £1m (€1.16m/$1.39m) per annum in incremental operating costs. 

“Our commitment to the city and to the contribution we can make through playing rugby at the Rec is undiminished. We will continue to consider solutions for an appropriate design at the Rec, which must also be financially sustainable over the long-term. The appeal hearing in the Autumn is an important next step on the journey.”

Meanwhile, Harlequins is eyeing its Premiership home match against Bath on May 29 as the first opportunity to trial new COVID-19 certification technology. The club aims to offer an option for supporters who would like to take part in testing the new technology for games at the Twickenham Stoop.

MyGP, the UK’s largest independent healthcare management app, has partnered with V-Health Passport to release the UK’s first vaccine certification technology for iOS users, with Android compatibility to follow in the coming weeks.

The myGP TICKet feature, accessed within the myGP app, displays whether a patient is sufficiently protected from COVID-19 by surfacing a green tick around a user photo 12 days following their second vaccine dose.

This feature intends to provide a clinically assured means of proving a person’s vaccination status, displayed in real-time, and generated directly from a patient’s medical record. It was piloted by Barchester Healthcare and Lilian Faithful care homes in March and will be rolling out across all platforms from today.

Currently available to patients at 97% of England’s GP practices, myGP has worked with the NHS as an assured supplier, meaning the app is already an NHS-approved access point for more than two million patients in England.

May 17 has been set by the Government’s reopening roadmap for England as the earliest date from which sports fans can return to stadia and arenas. Harlequins’ first home match following this date is the Bath game.

Harlequins CEO Laurie Dalrymple said of the myGP TICKet technology: “The current social distancing rules mean that most professional sports clubs and event venues will struggle to get up to 50% capacity, which in reality is not a financially viable business model. We are therefore very keen to look at all types of innovative solutions which could help safely support the return of greater number of fans to stadiums.

“The myGP app looks like an interesting technological solution and we are interested in collaborating to promote this new tool to our supporters ahead of the Bath match. This would be entirely optional for our supporters – those that would like to download the app and show their vaccination status on entry for example, can do so to help test the technology in a live environment. Any supporter attending who would prefer not to, will not be obliged to.”

Pro14 takes dual tournament approach for Rainbow Cup

In other rugby news, the Pro14 has today been forced to revise its plans for a new Rainbow Cup tournament incorporating South Africa’s former Super Rugby teams. In December, the cross-border league unveiled the Rainbow Cup as a means to conclude its 2020-21 season, taking a further step towards having greater South African participation.

Pro14 stakeholders took the decision to end the current season early in March in an effort to allow South Africa’s four former Super Rugby teams to join its existing clubs to finish the campaign with a 16-team Rainbow Cup competition ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.

However, with no formal approvals in place to allow the South African teams to enter the UK & Ireland for their Rainbow Cup fixtures, Pro14 Rugby and SA Rugby have now said they will operate dual tournaments with no cross-hemisphere fixtures.

South Africa’s presence on the travel red list of the territories involved has led to today’s announcement. A wide stakeholder group, led by a working group between the tournament team at Pro14 Rugby and SA Rugby, assessed 12 venues across the UK, Ireland and Europe as base camps for the South African teams to operate out of or to use as a quarantine destination before entering the UK and Ireland. SA Rugby explored another four locations separate to this. Destinations in the Middle East were also explored as potential hosts for fixtures involving South African teams.

A ‘northern’ Pro14 Rainbow Cup will now take place on the dates previously published, with Ulster v Connacht to start proceedings on Friday. Only the teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales will compete.

A ‘southern’ tournament will be called Rainbow Cup SA and will include the Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls. The two organising bodies said today’s decision will have no impact on the long-term partnership between Pro14 Rugby and SA Rugby, adding that more details about those plans and league structure for the “ground-breaking” 2021-22 season onwards will be made public shortly.

Martin Anayi, CEO of Pro14 Rugby, said: “A staggering volume of work has been undertaken to provide a number of proposals and options to accommodate this – all as we navigated the challenges of the second and third waves of COVID-19 as well as the South African variant which constantly changed the landscape we were operating in.

“Whilst the outcome is clearly different from what we had intended, our relationship and partnership with SA Rugby has been greatly strengthened and enhanced by this experience.”

Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, added: “This is a huge disappointment, but time had simply run out. No stone was left unturned to try and find a solution to the challenges – including basing our teams for 10 days in locations in the Middle East or Europe. But the pieces of the jigsaw would not fall into place in time to allow us to put those plans into action.”

Image: Stadium for Bath