EletiofeEngland hope up to 22,000 fans will be at...

England hope up to 22,000 fans will be at Twickenham for autumn games

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The Rugby Football Union is hoping for crowds of around 22,000 for England’s autumn Test matches at Twickenham, almost half the previous target, which is set to result in a multimillion pound shortfall for the governing body.

The RFU announced on Wednesday that pending government approval, 20,000 fans will be allowed into Twickenham for next month’s rearranged uncapped match against the Barbarians. While the Guardian understands there is set to be a modest increase of around a couple of thousand for England’s eight nations matches in November and December, the union’s chief executive, Bill Sweeney, had previously hoped for nearly 40,000 – worth around £3m a match.

Crucially, crowds will be lower than the threshold required for regular supporters to buy tickets for Twickenham’s autumn Tests. As revealed by the Guardian in July, the RFU had reserved the first 28,000 tickets for debenture holders and corporate sponsors, meaning regular supporters are set to be frozen out.

For the Barbarians match on 25 October, priority will be given to those who had already bought tickets for the original date in June, before they go on sale. It is understood 30,000 tickets have already been sold and all those will be refunded with an option to rebuy or stick with a full refund.

The RFU is forecasting losses of up to £107m due to the pandemic, on top of the £15m hit already incurred, and though having crowds for England matches will be welcomed – 20,000 would represent the largest at a UK sporting event since March – there will be frustration that the number is not higher given Twickenham’s capacity of 82,000.

It is believed that the bottlenecks that occur at Twickenham railway station are among the reasons why. Across the road at the Stoop, Harlequins are set to admit 3,500 supporters for Saturday’s Premiership fixture against Bath, the first professional match in England with a crowd since lockdown began.

When Sweeney estimated that crowds of nearly 40,000 could generate £3m a match, England were still scheduled to play New Zealand, Tonga, Argentina and Australia in November. Those matches have since been cancelled with the now eight nations tournament – featuring the Six Nations, Fiji and either Japan or Georgia – to replace them. It is still not known how many matches England will play at Twickenham however, and given a broadcast deal is yet to be announced, how much the games will be worth to the union is unclear, though it will be significantly less than the £12m Sweeney hoped for.

Before that tournament begins, England are due to complete their Six Nations campaign against Italy in Rome, six days after the Barbarians match, which will see a host of additional safety measures introduced, including “above normal” levels of staffing, mandatory face coverings except when seated, queue lanes and one-way systems. A test event will also be staged at Twickenham beforehand.

“We continue to work closely with the government and the local authority on the return of sports fans to the stadium,” said Sweeney. “The numbers of fans able to attend, given social distancing requirements, will be significantly lower than normal and subject to final agreement from the government.”

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While it is understood the Barbarians are confident of attracting some players from abroad despite the logistical difficulties, they are also likely to turn to domestic players out of contract in October, Chris Robshaw of Harlequins being an obvious candidate.

There is no agreement in place for the release of contracted Premiership players whose clubs do not reach the league’s final, which will be played 24 hours earlier, but it is believed some Saracens players not involved with England may be selected given their relegation to the Championship.

Arsenal, meanwhile, could allow a limited number of fans into the Emirates for their Premier League match against Sheffield United on 3 October. A club statement read: “Although our home fixture against West Ham United on Sunday 20 September will be played behind closed doors, based on the current UK Government guidelines, we hope to be able to welcome supporters back to Emirates Stadium on a reduced-capacity basis from the Sheffield United game scheduled for Saturday 3 October.”

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