Rugby Union: Hibernating clubs given wake-up call by advance ticket sales

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The Independent Online
The Allied Dunbar Premiership returns from suspended animation this afternoon to face an immediate health check. Can professional club rugby take advantage of the England Test team's high-profile heroics and establish itself as a sound commercial proposition, or is the whole ambitious venture no more than a gargantuan slice of pie in the sky? Chris Hewett reports.

Welcome to rugby's Christmas pantomime, which this year boasts an all- star cast including Cliff Brittle as a particularly reactionary wicked witch, Fran Cotton and Bill Beaumont as two provincially minded ugly sisters and the entire rank and file of the Allied Dunbar Premiership as an impoverished Cinderella with ideas far above her station. According to Brittle's version of the script, she will be the first Cinders in history to go from riches to rags.

The first act was performed on Thursday, when the much-maligned chairman of the Rugby Football Union's man-agement board issued his controversial blueprint for the future of the English game: a pronouncement that struck many clubs as a peculiar cross between a Papal Bull and an Alan Partridge diatribe. Today's second act, in which Cinders finally gets to the ball after four interminable weeks spent locked in the broom cupboard, is deadly serious. Will club rugby successfully ride the Hawaiian-sized wave generated by last weekend's wondrous England-New Zealand contest at Twickenham, or will it be a morale-sapping case of After the Lord Mayor's Show?

If advance ticket sales for this afternoon's London derby between Harlequins and Wasps at The Stoop are a reliable guide, the clubs are back in business in a big way. "We've sold more than 5,000 seats and if the weather behaves itself, we'll be close to an 8,000 capacity crowd," Donald Kerr, Quins' acting chief executive, said yesterday. "I can't remember a League or Premiership match that has generated such strong initial interest here. Before professionalism, we'd have been lucky to pull in 4,000 for a Wasps fixture and the upturn tells us that the potential audience for club rugby these days is high - higher, indeed, than some people seem to think."

Only three months ago, the boot was very much on the other foot. The Heineken Cup match between Quins and Bourgoin, the crack French side who won last season's European Conference competition, might just as well have been played on the moon for all the support it attracted. The hospitality suites were full and the press box packed, but the paying public decided that 13 September was hair-washing afternoon. All in all, it was a bad moment for rugby's new-age financiers.

Yet this weekend's Premiership programme promises to be the best-attended of the season, thanks in part to the dramatic content of England's month- long tussle with the heavyweights of the southern hemisphere but also to a genuine hunger for top-level club action. Leicester will pull in 10,000 plus for this afternoon's game with Sale, Newcastle expect a full house at Kingston Park for tomorrow's meeting with Gloucester and Saracens predict an audience of around 8,000 for the visit of Bath.

During the recent exercise in mid-winter hibernation, the body charged with administering the professional club game, the English Rugby Partnership, worked closely with Allied Dunbar's marketing and research wing in an effort to identify the potential audience for their combined product. "The figures show that almost 50 per cent of males between 16 and 40 have an interest in the top end of the game and we see that as a highly encouraging statistic," said Kerr, who chairs ERP.

"The issue centres on the structured season. If we can create a fixture list under which the clubs have a meaningful home game once a fortnight, there is a chance of commercial viability. It is through regular exposure that people begin to identify with their local club, which in turn translates into regular support.

"We've just had four weeks on the sidelines at Quins and I can't say it hasn't been difficult. We played one or two second-team games on the mornings of international matches and there was some interest, but we were effectively shut down for a month and it hurt us. People spend money at this time of year, but because we had little or no rugby to offer, no one was spending any of it here. Obviously, we need to forge some sort of common agreement on international dates to enable clubs to keep operating."

Representatives of the Allied Dunbar clubs are pushing for a maximum of two pre-Christmas England internationals from now on, although they would almost certainly be prepared to settle for a compromise figure of three. What they require urgently is an end to disruptive one-off Tests like next weekend's Italy-Ireland match, which will deprive Quins, for instance, of two senior front-row forwards for their trip to Leicester.

Quite who Quins will field at the sharp end this afternoon was still under wraps yesterday; the only certainty was that there would be no room for Will Carling (remember him?). Wasps, however, were prepared to divulge their line-up. Alex King has declared himself fit for action after a 20- minute run-out with the second-string in midweek, Laurence Scrase replaces the injured Nick Greenstock in midfield and the flanker Jon Ions makes his Premiership debut on the open side.