Empty seats expected for Jonny Wilkinson's return to HQ
Saracens, favourites for the Premiership title and the last English team standing in Europe, are slowly familiarising themselves with the novelty of playing to packed crowds at their new Allianz Park home in Hendon, but when they travel across town to Twickenham this weekend for their most important match of the season the paying public will seem few and far between. Around 20,000 tickets have been sold for the Heineken Cup semi-final with the stellar French side Toulon and unless there is an audience "walk-up" on an unprecedented scale, the contest will unfold in front of 60,000 empty seats.
"Clearly, it is not ideal for the sport to have such a big game between big clubs in a stadium where there are such gaps in the crowd," acknowledged Edward Griffiths, the Saracens chief executive. He could have said that again… and again.
The Heineken Cup is already fighting for its future in the face of a rabid outbreak of boardroom politics, with English and French clubs threatening to walk away altogether from the end of next season. An atmosphere-free event at the most famous rugby stadium of them all will hardly help matters.
While Saracens have had their share of fun and games with European Rugby Cup Ltd, the Heineken Cup custodians, Griffiths was in no hurry to play the blame game – even though he and his club have been denied the opportunity to boost attendance with the kind of inventive marketing ploys pioneered by the club since the dawning of professionalism in the mid-1990s.
"In fairness to ERC, they are running a complex cross-border tournament across a number of different rugby territories and it is their view that having a single set of rules and regulations for everyone works best," the CEO remarked. "That may lead to a lack of flexibility, but it doesn't make them culpable. It is not an easy problem to solve."
Sunday's semi-final is an ERC production rather than a Saracens one. Tickets are priced at the top of the range for a club fixture and the "home" team will not be permitted to serve up their unique – some would say garish – brand of pre-match and interval entertainment. Griffiths did not quite say as much, but the visit of Jonny Wilkinson and company would have been staged very differently had he and his colleagues been let loose on the event.
Meanwhile, a bullish Bristol underlined their determination to find a way out of the second tier and back into the top flight by appointing the highly regarded Sean Holley as their first-team coach for next season. Holley, who was running the successful Welsh side Ospreys until this time last year, will work with the former England and Scotland coach Andy Robinson, who joined the club as rugby director in February.
"There is still a lot I want to achieve in my coaching career and I haven't taken this decision lightly," Holley said. "I am confident, after discussing the plans in place for the club, that the ambition of Bristol matches my personal goals."
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