ANALYSIS | Sports ministry showing some common sense in return to play drive

Nathi Mthethwa (Gallo Images)
Nathi Mthethwa (Gallo Images)
  • The sports ministry is seemingly applying a more pragmatic approach to the return of sport.
  • Rugby's return to play is now in sight as the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture focus on compliance in terms of protocol plans.
  • The issue of hosting events in hotspots has now also become far more measured.


Practice what you're planning to preach.

That mildly reworked cliche is arguably the best way to explain how local rugby will gain approval for a return to play, currently slated for mid-September through an expanded Currie Cup.

During a media briefing on Monday, Vusumusi Mkhize, director-general for the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, made a revealing remark in this regard.

"When we received protocol plans from a federation, we don't necessarily enter into negotiations," he said.

"It's compliance that we engage on, based on the plans that have been submitted and how they align with the regulations and directives as gazetted by the minister."

What this essentially means is that the ministry is past the point of telling SA Rugby, who've been meticulous with the compilation of their health and safety protocols throughout, what they need to do.

As Mkhize admitted, the federation is "fortunately a step ahead and we have their plans" despite the ministry only planning on gazetting new guidelines for a return to play for contact sports this week.

It's all about convincing the government that one's protocols are enforceable.

"So yes, with rugby, we are working with them," said Mkhize.

Yet, even if some on-field action is now in sight, there was another very prominent theme to emerge from the department's communication: Pragmatism is now seemingly becoming the cornerstone of its approach.

The emotion of restarting sport at a time where the country is steadily reaching a peak in Covid-19 infections is counterbalanced by the necessity for professional codes to play again - for economic survival - if safe to do so.

Even the previously thorny issue of hosting sporting events in virus hotspots has now been replaced with a more measured outlook.

"If we were going to prevent soccer from resuming in Gauteng because it's a hotspot, then as a whole (sporting community) we shouldn't have been doing anything," said Mkhize.

"This virus' spread is affecting almost every community in the country."

And therein lies the paradox of hosting a tournament or league in a region with rising infection numbers.

Gauteng might be the epicentre of virus, but it's also the province - at least according to the Premier Soccer League's (PSL) return to play protocols - best equipped to provide facilities for a bio-secure environment in terms of the proximity of hotels, training facilities and match venues.

"We need to emphasise that the issue of hotspots is about the number of people who have contracted Covid-19 within a particular square metre range. It's about the general population," said Mkhize.

"But when it comes to sport, it's about how you will comply with your safety regulations, even if it's in a hotspot like Gauteng. It's about coming up with a model where you are best able to contain any opportunistic infections. 

"A bio-bubble is a convincing measure and that's what has allowed the PSL to resume."

It still doesn't quite address why soccer, also considered a contact sport, is ahead of rugby in terms of a return to play.

Hearteningly, Deputy Minister Nocawe Mafu gave a relatively simple answer.

"A lot of other considerations were taken into account. Remember, the PSL had an obligation to finish the league. And when they met all the requirements, we agreed that they must go back to play," she said.

Indeed, given that Absa - whose title sponsorship ends at the conclusion of this campaign - spent R140 million per year on the PSL, simple economics dictated that play needed to somehow resume.

As the most lucrative league on the continent, it's a no-brainer.    

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