When referee Marcus Griffiths blew his whistle to kick off Leeds against Hull last weekend, it wasn’t just the Rhinos fans that felt a wave of emotion at the return of supporters to rugby league grounds.
For Sue Ward, the club’s operations director, it marked the end of a tumultuous and challenging 14 months that had seen the Rhinos go from dealing with one of the country’s first Covid cases to leading the way in bringing the sport back to the pitch.
Ward – who was last year appointed as the first female director in the club’s history – has been at the coal face while Leeds staged 32 matches behind closed doors over the 10 months. So when they opened those doors to spectators again on Sunday, the relief was tangible.
“It was amazing,” Ward explained. “When he blew that whistle for kick-off, that was the kick-start for normality again. It’s saying we’re moving forward again now. Just hearing the crowd when the team came out again was brilliant.
“The last 14 months have been really stressful. Planning for every eventuality isn’t easy, and you have to gear up very quickly for changes. One minute you’re going down one road and then it changes suddenly.
“There’s been so many strange scenarios – hosting games when you’re not playing or being the away team at your home ground and the Rhinos getting changed on the South Stand concourse. It feels like it’s flown by now, but when you go back to that January date and what has happened since, it’s been amazing that we’ve been able to make things work and come through it.”
The date that Ward refers to is January 27 last year, when the club was suddenly thrust into the evolving world of a global pandemic.
“I wasn’t on site, but we received a call that an international student had been taken ill with Covid symptoms and that she had been isolated at the stadium, ” Ward recalled. “At that point there was no government or RFL protocol, we didn’t want to panic but we needed to know where she’d been and who she’d been with.
“Long story short, an ambulance came to collect her, however she’d left site, so we decided then that we were closing the building down until we received further instructions. Students use rooms in our East Stand and can use the cafe, and we didn’t know where she’d been.”
Within two months the whole country had followed into lockdown, and the next goal was being able to get the sport back up and running again, albeit without supporters.
“The work that went on from March 23 to July 1 was to enable the first team to return to train,” Ward said. “We put so many procedures and protocols in place just to get the training ground open. It’s classed as a designated sporting environment, and the whole site was turned into a bio-secure area that nobody else could use.
“Our staff had to go through extensive education on Covid protocols and had to opt in to say they understood the risks. If people lived with somebody that was vulnerable, they had to take all of that into account.
“We tried to lead the way because the quicker you can get back into training the quicker the competition starts again. On August 2 we started hosting a series of double and triple headers behind closed doors, working really closely with the RFL and Super League, who were fantastic in interpreting what came out of DCMS and Public Health England, which wasn’t always clear.
“When you add in government and governing body advice, it was quite hard and very stressful. But we got Super League started again.”
The Rhinos’ procedures helped ensure just one positive case in their squad last season, but the new year brought fresh challenges when an outbreak occurred in January that included players, coaching staff and analysts. It meant the training ground was shut for 10 days.
“It’s not just about the person that’s tested positive it’s then about working out their close contacts,” Ward said. “If they have a test and are positive, then the chain goes on and on. We’ve learned now that if cases are up in the local community, then cases increase internally.”
Once that particular hurdle was cleared, the next major issue was the return of fans to Headingley, which happened on Sunday after weeks of meticulous planning. Mirror Sport was invited to spend part of the match day with Ward and the club’s head of HR Sarah Tate, and the level of detail in every area of the operation was eye-opening.
“Everywhere has had to be cleaned and prepared with a fine-toothed comb,” Ward explained. “You have to prepare and work to a detailed event plan that covers every person coming into the ground, where to get in, where to park whether fans, press, broadcasters.
“The biggest element with crowds returning is the fan journey, communicating with spectators so they think about whether they’re well on the day of the game and whether they should travel. The RFL produced a code of conduct that we followed, it’s a risk assessment which says if you’re buying a ticket you’ll comply with the terms and conditions.
“We put together a video for supporters explaining exactly how everything would work. There’s been an immense amount of work that’s gone into this”
So when 4,000 supporters roared as the Rhinos kicked off, you couldn’t begrudge Ward, Tate and the rest of the Rhinos staff their moment of emotion. It will have been repeated at rugby league grounds and in other stadiums across the country, the culmination of over a year of work that has helped keep professional sport alive.
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