Overview: The road back for supporters at the RDS Arena
April 23, 2021 3:00 pm Marcus Ó Buachalla
For the love of the game.
That is why Irish people have always been out there, kicking spirals, fetching high balls, bending free-kicks or giving of their time from the sideline.
Games, whatever they may be, are at the heart of what we do, even who we are.
Within accepted boundaries, the sooner we have the outlet of being at them, the better off this country will be, physically and mentally.
That is why Leinster Rugby has taken the lead in submitting plans to the Irish Government for use of rapid antigen testing to allow the return of spectators to matches at the RDS Arena.
They are doing so by looking to host a ‘trial match’ in May to road-test the strict protocols laid down.
In a time of unprecedented need, the IRFU, FAI and GAA have come together to forge a way forward, to walk everyone back to sport.
Last April, the Government’s release of the document, ‘Resilience and Recovery 2020/21: Plan for Living with Covid-19’ prompted the three national sporting organisations to set up a working group to take a collaborative approach to safely overseeing the return of supporters to sports events, initially through trial matches.
“‘Resilience and Recovery’ said that the Government would look for input from the sporting organisations and we responded,” said Martin Murphy, the Chairman of the Group.
The IRFU, FAI and GAA decided they would all work together to draft a set of guidelines that would provide a safe and secure environment for people to come back to when it is appropriate to do so.
The Chief Executives of the IRFU, Philip Browne, and the FAI, Jonathan Hill, and the GAA Director General, Tom Ryan, in tandem with their respective Heads of Operations, were involved in the process.
“We also had expert advice from Health and Safety consultants Eamon O’Boyle and Monica Lillis to make sure we used the right technical people to ensure we comply in a pretty comprehensive document,” said Murphy.
“We had input from the supportive Department of Sport and Sport Ireland. We consulted widely with appropriate stakeholders in coming up with a comprehensive draft document ‘Guidelines for Re-Opening Sportsgrounds.’ That was submitted last October.”
So far, sadly, this is where a potential good news story has stalled.
“We are still waiting for a response from the Department of Health,” noted Murphy, the Stadium Director at Aviva Stadium.
The Chairman is at pains to emphasise the level of detail and planning that went into the methodically thought out document.
“In this case, my role was to coordinate that effort between those three national organisations. There were several iterations of the report before it was finalised. Everybody had their input into the final document.
“It settled on broad guidelines with room for specific plans to be drawn up for each venue. We charted out the principles. Eamon and Monica made sure those were in keeping with the standards and regulations.
“The importance of sport to the overall mental and physical health of the nation is well-recognised. This is an example of the organisations being proactive.
“It is on the back of that Leinster have moved to make a submission to government,” said Murphy.
It has done so by focusing in on the ‘Report of the Covid-19 Rapid Testing Group,’ published in April 2020.
In that report, Professor Mark Ferguson, the Director General of the Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland recommended that ‘Antigen Testing’ should be trialled.
Murphy maintains: “The Chief Executives of the IRFU, FAI and GAA are all supportive of Leinster’s initiative to play a ‘trial match’.
“Leinster have made it very clear that they are willing to share their experience and any data that emerges from this trial.
“There have been 110 matches played behind closed doors and Leinster have been involved in 11 of them. Out of those, there have been no cases of Covid-19 recorded. That is a really important point to bring out.
“We have approached this from a responsible perspective. We want to do our bit to try and get back to normal, to work with Covid-19.
“We have already done this by providing Aviva Stadium as a Covid-19 testing centre for nine months and, now, as a vaccination centre.
“That has all been done pro-bono, as part of the response by rugby and football to the pandemic.”
The IRFU, FAI and GAA want to drive the return-to-play and return-to-support for everyone in the country.
For this, they would welcome engagement from the government.
“It is very disappointing that the Department of Health has not come back to us, so far, about our document,” said Murphy.
“We all understand that the department is very busy dealing with the various issues stemming from an operational aspect. But, there needs to be some forum, or channel, through which people can engage and assist.
“At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be that channel. We hope it can open up soon. What we have decided to do is to have plans in place, so when the time is right we can implement those plans without delay.
“As it stands, were things to improve and, suddenly, the time is right, the fact there hasn’t been any engagement from Health would lead to another delay in getting people back out there. To be ready to go, we need to know what the guidelines are to speed the process up, be proactive, instead of reactive.
“We want to engage and should the Department need a tweak here and there, we are happy to do that.
“At the moment, we can’t do that because we are in limbo.”
Last year, Leinster Rugby engaged the services of health and safety consultants Eamon O’Boyle & Associates (EOBA) to develop their Covid-19 protocols.
EOBA’s Senior Events consultant Monica Lillis has been there from the initial process in devising a system for Leinster’s behind-closed-door matches.
“We are in the risk assessment business anyway. This is just another part of what EOBA does for Leinster Rugby,” she said.
“The key principles to Covid-19 mitigation are straight forward. It is about preventing spread by keeping your distance, hygiene and wearing a mask.
“Once you apply those, it is fairly simple to develop the rules and adjust them to a particular scenario.”
The prior relationship that existed between Leinster Rugby and EOBA means a smooth transition from planning for behind-closed-doors matches and the proposed ‘trial match’ next month.
“We were dealing with the IRFU and the different provinces on their behind-closed-doors games for their training regimes and how they ran their facilities when Covid-19 became an issue last year.
“Also, we were usually involved with Leinster Rugby in devising their event management plans for their games before the pandemic. When it came to Covid-19, we prepared a behind-closed-doors plan,” said Lillis.
First up, there are the online health declarations and inductions before anyone is allowed to set foot on site.
There is copious signage to remind people to keep their distance, a new entry for staff where everyone has their temperature checked.
“Dressing-rooms are sanitised and sealed and the teams and coaches are limited in the time it spends in them,” shared Lillis.
“Everyone in the red zone, that’s everyone in the performance area, gets PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) tested, staff members and team, before every game. That is strict. No one else is allowed into this area.
“Now that Covid-19 has been around for a year, it is a lot easier to put together a plan for the ‘trial game’ and to execute it.
“The framework allows you to open at Level 1 and Level 2 in the larger facilities, like Croke Park, Aviva Stadium and the RDS, any outdoor facility holding over 5,000 people.
“In participation with the IRFU, FAI and GAA, we set out the ‘Guidelines for Re-Opening Sportsgrounds’ document, outlining what needs to be done to open up the sports grounds in a Covid-19 environment.
“We set out that we would need trial games with lower numbers of spectators before a full re-opening to spectators could occur.”
Data from other sports held in other countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the USA, has been drawn on.
The extra precaution needed for the trial match requires a very manageable layer of preparation on top of that already in place.
“The big difference is the capacity. That is the most amount of work,” she stated.
“There are basic similarities in hygiene, cleanliness, zoning the areas, keeping people in smaller groups separated from each other and the enforcement of mask policy.
“When we look at capacity for an event, we look at four elements. One, the entry capacity. Two, the holding capacity, how many people can you seat. Three, the exit capacity. Four, the emergency exit capacity.
“Your maximum capacity is based on the lowest of those four numbers,” said Lillis.
“We had to look at those individually and assess how social distancing affected each. For instance, in calculating the holding capacity, we dropped dots on seating plans, separated by two metres to ascertain how many people we could fit in each stand.
“For this proposed trial game, we are talking about selling the tickets in pairs where there can be two members from the same household or social bubble allowed to be paired together at a two-metre remove from the next pair of seats.
“Then, the entry and exiting have to be staggered at a two-metre distance, while they are queuing or leaving the ground. Everything will be slowed down and spread out. There are calculations to make sure those work too.
“We also used the United Kingdom Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) document last year, titled ‘SG02 Planning for Social Distancing at Sportsgrounds,’ related to calculating capacity during Covid-19, as a reference. And we adjusted that accordingly for Irish guidelines.
“The other element was separating the stands in the RDS into four distinct sections with their own entry and exit, their own toilet facilities.
“For the first ‘trial game’, there will be no food trucks or bars or any entertainment services to make sure it works, almost treating the RDS like four separate events at one game.”
Of course, the venue has been used regularly by Leinster Rugby this season and many of the wrinkles have already been ironed out.
“In general, the systems in the stadium are in place for crowds over 18,000. They already have the sanitary and hygiene facilities in place for the behind-closed-doors games.
“Extra measures could be put in pretty quickly, if we get the go-ahead. More signage and separation of the zones is probably most of what needs to be done to bring the RDS up to standard.
“Antigen testing of all staff and spectators will reduce the risk of someone with the virus entering the stadium and will add another layer of assurance to those attending.
“And, of course, all our learnings and relevant data from the event will be shared with the public health authorities and Department of Sport accordingly to better prepare for the opening up of the country.
“We are putting the work in to make it as safe as possible. We are very hopeful the ‘trial games’ will go ahead. It would be a huge benefit to help to open up other sports and activities.”
There are many parties that have come together to make rugby possible this season, the professionalism of the RDS, the expertise of An Garda Síochána and Sword Security contributing to the overall co-operation.
For Leinster Rugby, Orlagh Ní Chorcoráin has been their Covid-19 Match Manager for the Guinness PRO14 and Heineken Champions Cup matches.
“There is a huge team effort in hosting a game behind-closed-doors. We have worked closely with the IRFU in setting up the match ready platform allowing us to advance screen all attendees entering an event” she said.
“That allows us to register everybody deemed essential, or attending the game, to have a full health screening method in place. We can easily track and trace all attendees. That is the biggest change.
“We would have always known who was coming. But, this allows us to facilitate health screening, making sure everyone is Covid-free when attending the venue.
“In addition we have extra checks on match day through our one-way, in-and-out system in our match centre. You come through our match centre, have your temperature checked and move on to collect your accreditation and proceed to your role/seat.
“We are there to provide a safe operating environment for both teams, for everyone who attends the RDS on match day. It is quite a rigid, strict process. It has to be.”
The proof of the pudding is in the results from the matches played out under Ní Chorcoráin’s stewardship.
“There are upwards of 250-300 attending, depending on what game it is. We’ve had 11 match days completed, all Covid-free. All the systems and processes are working well.
“The natural next step is to provide a safe environment for spectators to return to matches, trusting all the precautions have been taken.
“I believe we are ready to host a ‘trial match’. Everything we have had in place puts us in a confident position to welcome some fans back to the RDS.”
“We are very excited at the prospect of this proof-of-concept match and how it can provide a roadmap into the future.”
It can be sooner rather than later.