Heineken Cup draws record attendance

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The Independent Online

These are very early days – Mark Regan has only just picked his first argument of the campaign, and Lawrence Dallaglio has not had time to tell more than one rival where he can stick his protective head gear – but the Heineken Cup is already on course to break attendance records left, right and centre.

Almost 129,000 spectators watched last weekend's 12 first-round matches, the best figure recorded for the opening hostilities since the tournament was launched a dozen years ago, and as interest levels will grow as the competition progresses, last season's unprecedentedly high total pool stage audience of just over 700,000 is likely to be soundly beaten.

Seven of the games drew gates of 10,000-plus, with Leinster, playing their home games at the Royal Dublin Society ground while Lansdowne Road is made fit for the 21st century rather than the 17th, drawing more than 18,000 for their victory over Leicester.

This was surpassed only by Wasps, who braved the wrath of members and season ticket holders by forsaking the home comforts of High Wycombe and taking on Munster at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry.

It was a risky move by the champions' chief executive, Tony Copsey, but as he pointed out: "We are always being accused of not being as ambitious off the pitch as we are on it, so I felt it was time to make a bold move." And as Shaun Edwards, the Wasps coach, added: "You must also remember that we're skint."

The best attendance for a round of pool games was in last year's second tranche of matches, when almost 137,000 turned out in late October for a programme featuring premium fixtures at Gloucester, Cardiff Blues, Stade Français and Toulouse.

This weekend's programme has every chance of surpassing the 2006 figure. Gloucester play Ospreys, the glitz-and-glitter Welsh regional side, at the newly-expanded Kingsholm on Friday night – 13,000 tickets have already been sold – while Bristol, Leicester and Munster confidently expect sell-out crowds for their respective games with Stade Français, Edinburgh and Clermont Auvergne. In addition, Toulouse will shift the lion's share of the 19,000-plus tickets available for the visit of Leinster.

Although Premiership crowds have been a few percentage points down, largely because of the rival attraction provided by the World Cup, administrators believe the lost ground will be comfortably regained between now and season's end. This week's formal announcement of the peace agreement between the top-flight clubs and the Rugby Football Union will only help matters. With a deal in place until 2016, the Premiership fraternity can press ahead with long-planned improvements to their stadia without fear of being hostages to political fortune.

Gethin Jenkins, the Cardiff Blues front-rower who played in the British Isles' Test series against New Zealand in 2005, will lead Wales in their one-off match with the new world champions, South Africa, at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday week. He succeeds Gareth Thomas, his Blues colleague, and will be only the fourth prop forward to captain the Red Dragonhood since World War II.

Nigel Davies, the caretaker coach who will hand over to the recently-appointed Warren Gatland at the start of next month, described Jenkins as a "dedicated professional sportsman".

For his part, Jenkins said: "We are all relishing the opportunity to get back into it so quickly after the disappointment of our World Cup exit. When we pull on the red jersey again the memories will be refreshed, we will all still be hurting. I can't think of a better way to ease the pain than to take it out on the Springboks."

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