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Ulster one step closer to return but fans face extended wait to get back to Kingspan Stadium

 

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Closing in: Ulster are hoping for Luke Marshall and co to be training by the end of June

Closing in: Ulster are hoping for Luke Marshall and co to be training by the end of June

©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Closing in: Ulster are hoping for Luke Marshall and co to be training by the end of June

As Ulster confirmed their intention to be back training by the end of this month, the announcement brought with it a reminder that rugby as we know it will not return for quite some time to come.

With the province now awaiting Stormont approval to get back on the paddock, they are one step closer to the IRFU's target of a behind-closed-doors inter-pro against Connacht likely to be held on August 23 in the Aviva Stadium, one day after Leinster and Munster get the ball rolling in the same venue.

Those games, which would count towards placings in a curtailed PRO14, are set to precede a quick-fire jump into the play-offs that will see a 2019-20 league champion crowned in September before the 2020-21 campaign begins the month after.

Given the continuing uncertainty around social distancing requirements as Northern Ireland plans to emerge from lockdown, however, the positive move towards seeing players back in action was twinned with further indication that the fans' own return to the Kingspan Stadium terraces is considerably further away.

Ulster will put no season tickets on sale for next year and instead plan to offer fans the opportunity to join a membership scheme - named #TogetherUlster - which will afford them priority access to match tickets as and when they become available again. Fans who had already purchased individual tickets for what remained of the 2019-20 campaign will be offered a full refund, although those in possession of season tickets or multi-game packages can only claim credit towards future games.

The financial burden of staging a prolonged run of games behind closed doors is evident. In their most recent annual report, match tickets alone accounted for £3.2m of the province's total £10.6m revenue.

In part to offset such a sizable loss, season ticket holders have been given the option of donating their refund to the club while any further refunds not claimed by June 30 will also "go towards ensuring that the club is in as strong a position as possible to return when the time is right", read a statement yesterday.

CEO Jonny Petrie thanked supporters for their patience with the side not having played a game since February 22.

"In the unprecedented circumstances we all find ourselves in as a result of coronavirus, it is important that we as a club make decisions which place the long-term interests of our supporters at the forefront," he said.

"We would also like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of our supporters - and in particular our dedicated season ticket holders - who have shown great patience and understanding as we continue to work through what is in no doubt the most difficult situation we are likely to face as an organisation. It is heartening to see how they have chosen to stand up and support us at this time."

While the German Bundesliga was the first cab off the rank almost a month ago when it came to major European sport played in empty stadiums, and it will become an even more familiar sight between now and Ulster Rugby's return to Kingspan Stadium, the prospect of such contests taking place in BT6 will be a strange one for players and fans alike.

It's a stark contrast to the situation in New Zealand where it was confirmed yesterday that pro rugby will return this weekend in front of full crowds.

Given the cross-border nature of Super Rugby, the plan for a 10-week domestic competition between the Kiwi clubs was confirmed in May. At that point, games behind closed doors seemed a near certainty but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern began the week by announcing that the government is to lift restrictions on mass gatherings after the last person known to be infected in the country recovered from the virus.

"It is a testament to all New Zealanders that we are in a position to lift restrictions on mass gatherings and it's a massive boost for Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa," said NZR CEO Mark Robinson

"We're incredibly proud, and grateful, to be the first professional sports competition in the world to be in a position to have our teams play in front of their fans again. It's going to be a very special and unique competition and it's fitting that New Zealanders now have a chance to be part of it."

The competition begins on Saturday with the Highlanders taking on the Chiefs (8.05am UK time) while the Blues, now of Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett, will host the Hurricanes on Sunday morning (4.35am UK time).

The significance is not lost on those involved.

"The world will be watching, and we will be ready to put on a show," said Highlanders CEO Roger Clark.

"Our players, coaches and staff have been working overtime to get Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa ready and to now be able to share the competition with our members and our fans will be a very special occasion."

Belfast Telegraph