Rugby Union: Few guests at the feast

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The Independent Online
No One can argue that we are in the middle of a great feast of club rugby but my worry is the lack of appetite being shown by the fans. I don't mean those who watch the games on television - they probably haven't seen so much rugby in their lives - but the supporters who turn up in the flesh.

It is particulary noticeable in England and Wales. Fans in France seem to be flocking to the matches in large numbers and with the same enthuasiam. The Scots don't appear to be doing too badly while the Irish are reacting well to the support of decent sized crowds.

But what we might have thought were the hot-beds of England and Welsh club rugby are not exactly throbbing with excitement. I was very disappointed last weekend when I was at the European home matches of Llanelli and Cardiff. I was fortunate enough to have been part of wonderful occasions at both grounds, especially Stradey Park where my father used to take me at a very young age. Whatever Llanelli achieved on the field the crowd played a big part in it.

But when they played Treviso, the Scarlets wouldn't have received much of a boost from a disappointingly low attendance. It was the same when Cardiff met Harlequins on the Sunday afternoon. There weren't many more than 6,000 in the Arms Park and it felt more than a little flat. Last year I played in Cardiff's game against Bath in the same competition and I said at the time it was one of the best club atmospheres I've ever experienced as a player.

What a contrast last week. You could hardly accuse Quins of being less attractive opposition. They're packed with international stars like Cabannes, Carling and Lacroix and Welsh exiles like Huw Harries and Gareth Llewellyn; and Cardiff are not exactly short of a few new attractions. And it wasn't only the Cardiff fans who stayed home. Few Quins supporters had made the trip.

This is hardly surprising because Quins are not very well supported at The Stoop, either. I gather there were only 3,500 to see their recent European group tie against Munster. This seems very odd to me because the London team could hardly have done more to create a team worth following. Wasps are not faring that much better. Only 4,000 saw them play Ulster while Saracens were watched by no more than 2,300 when they played Neath at Vicarage Road, the home of Watford FC. London Broncos rugby league team appear to be attracting better crowds than any of their union rivals. I am aware that union is still in its infancy as a commercial game and that the in-fighting we have had between club and country in England and Wales has not been a great advert for it. But the fact remains that top- class club rugby is faring worse than top-class rugby league and, in most cases, not as well as fourth-class football.

There may be simple reasons for this lack of interest. We are seeing far more televised rugby than ever before and perhaps that is taking the edge off the public appetite. There is also the possibility that the number of big games so early in the season is forcing some fans to watch their pockets - particularly with a big rush of international games to come in the next couple of months.

But it is a serious trend and it is taking place in good weather. We have the winter to face up to yet. No matter how much revenue the game gets from television or sponsorship, ambitious professional clubs need that vital income through the turnstiles. And those gate receipts are the only real barometer of the game's health.

Frano Botica, writing in the Llanelli programme, suggested that rugby has to market itself better with more entertainment before and during the match. Certainly, clubs will have to try to create the carnival atmosphere that can entice people.

The quality of the rugby is the biggest attraction of all, of course, and every player should be aware that he has a big contribution to make towards preserving his new livelihood. In fact, everyone in the game ought to be concentrating on this problem. It is more important than all the other matters they find to argue about.

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