A general view of the Mbombela Stadium. Picture: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix
A general view of the Mbombela Stadium. Picture: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Pumas keen to host ’bio-bubble’ Currie Cup at Mbombela Stadium

By Jacques van der Westhuyzen Time of article published Jul 30, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - SA Rugby’s staging of an eight-team Currie Cup-like competition in a bio-safe environment would cost anything between R30million and R65m.

Factors that would play a role in the final costing include:

* Whether the proposed competition took place over one or two rounds;

* How many players and staff would make up each of the eight squads;

* Where the so-called “bio-bubble” would be located;

* What the costs of accommodation and meals would be;

* What the costs of Covid-19 testing would be.

With international travel restrictions in place and no inter-continental competitions currently taking place because of the spread and threat of Covid-19, SA Rugby are hoping to host and stage an eight-team domestic competition from early September to early December, depending on South African government approval.

The competition is crucial for stakeholders following the suspension of all rugby in mid-March. It would also allow SA’s home-based Springboks to get much-needed game time ahead of the anticipated Rugby Championship in October and November, temporarily set to take place in New Zealand.

Bok coach Jacques Nienaber has already said that the SA-based players would need at least six matches to get up to speed and be match-ready for Test rugby. If a Currie Cup-like competition was unable to get off the ground, said Nienaber, then there would be no way the Boks could take on New Zealand, Australia and Argentina with any confidence or form.

It would appear that the favourite “option” for the eight teams to play in a domestic competition would be for them to go into a “bio-bubble” and face each other once or twice over the course of several weeks at one venue. There are, however, several pitfalls.

According to respected sports physician and former team doctor of among others, the Lions, Jon Patricious, having the teams set up camp inside a “bio-bubble” is very doable, but he does have concerns.

The Free State Cheetahs celebrate their 2019 Currie Cup final in. Will they get their chance to defend their crown. Picture: Christiaan Kotze/BackpagePix

“I understand the need for rugby to take place, because we’re dealing with livelihoods, and we’re also a sports-mad nation,” said Patricious. “And with a dangerous virus raging in our country we have no option but to go into a bubble, where everyone is isolated from the rest of the population.

“If everyone is screened before the time, and during the stay inside the bubble, and no one goes in or out of the bubble, then it’s possible to stage a competition. However, financially, it’s going to be very expensive, and practically it’s going to be very difficult.

“You (only) need one positive case and the whole thing could fall apart. And what about the mental and psychological health of those in the ‘bubble’; it’s not normal to live in a hotel room and be controlled for up to three months. It will be hugely disruptive to the families of those involved and the temptations will be there for the players to sneak out. It’s going to be extremely difficult to control.”

Two of the eight unions earmarked to feature in the Currie Cup-like competition, the Cheetahs and Pumas, are interested in hosting the “bio-bubble”. Both are in areas of SA where Covid-19 infections are low, while death rates in the Free State and Mpumalanga are also lower than in the bigger metropolitan areas.

According to George Stainton, who manages the commercial aspects of the Mpumalanga Rugby Union, Mbombela (or Nelspruit) is ideally located to host the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers, the two PRO14 teams, the Cheetahs and Kings, as well as Griquas and of course, the Pumas.

“The Covid numbers are low in this part of the country, we’ve got wonderful hotels, guest houses and other places of accommodation, while the weather is also good. The training facilities in the area are excellent and Mbombela Stadium’s field will easily handle four games a weekend - one on Friday, two on Saturday and one on Sunday,” Stainton said.

“The local community and several businesses could do with a boost in this time and I really can’t see how any other union could host a ‘bio-bubble’ more affordably than we can.”

Stainton said the Mpumalanga Rugby Union had handed in a comprehensive proposal to SA Rugby.

“There’s an urgency to have some kind of competition; it is critical on so many levels; for broadcasters, sponsors, players, unions and the fans,” Stainton said.

“Depending on the final protocols, staging a ‘bio-bubble’ would cost anything between R30 million and R65 million, but it could also be more. In Mbombela, it would be at the lower end of the cost spectrum.”

Some of the factors that would play a role in the final costing include: The number of players and management members allocated to a room; one, two, or three sharing a three-bedroom “townhouse”; whether meals will be served in the separate rooms or in a communal dining-room, what the costs of testing everyone twice a week would be, and for how many days the competition would run for.

“There’s always an opportunity to engage with sponsors, airline companies, bus companies and accommodation establishments,” said Stainton. “All those negotiations would determine what the final costs would be. Many unions also have value-added deals already in place.”

SA Rugby said they were still considering all their options. “We have a lot to consider and are working closely with the government, the eight franchises, our broadcast partner and other stakeholders on possible solutions, one of which is playing a competition in a bio-safe environment,” said a spokesperson for SA Rugby.

“The situation is obviously very fluid. The safety of our teams remains very important and (we) are also in the process of weighing up costs - which would include travel, accommodation, meals and more - and logistics for various scenarios.”

At the end of the day, as Patricious pointed out, “Would the broadcast audience justify the costs to play in a bubble?”


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