Peter Bills: Clubs should be lauded for ambition

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The Independent Online

Despite the negative reaction in a few quarters to my suggestion last week that the Heineken semi-finals ought to have been staged in far bigger stadiums, the evidence mounts of huge successes for clubs who have boldly taken ordinary club games to larger venues.

The remarkable 47,106 Saracens drew to Wembley for their Guinness Premiership match against Harlequins at the weekend was a triumph for their determination to be adventurous, to push the boundaries. By no means everything Saracens have done this season has been meritorious in my eyes, but I applaud the club's ambition and courage in this respect.

Sure, they could have come a cropper because Wembley is not a cheap venue to hire. Some, like my critics from last week, would doubtless have rubbished the idea that an ordinary Premiership game between two London teams would have lured almost 50,000 to Wembley. Imagine that, just a few years ago!

But clubs like Saracens are pushing the boundaries and they are getting the support and results their ambition deserves.

London Wasps are trying something similar this coming weekend. They have hired Twickenham for the game against Bath and expectations are that a similar crowd to Wembley last weekend, around 50,000, will turn up.

Whichever way you look at it, this is an absolute triumph for the Guinness Premiership and for those clubs willing to back a hunch. And intriguingly, a similar picture is unfolding across the Channel in France. Last weekend, RC Toulon hired the 60,000 capacity Velodrome stadium in Marseille for their Top 14 match against the champions Perpignan.

The atmosphere was extraordinary; a sea of flags with the colours of both clubs and a vibrant atmosphere. At Toulon's cosy but very small ground in the middle of their town, the capacity is just 13,700. Yet they drew an astonishing 58,250…a quite remarkable difference.

Nor was this the sole example of clubs taking a punt on whether they can lure greater audiences in better stadia. Bourgoin, one of the least fashionable of the French Top 14 clubs who have struggled desperately against relegation all season, have a capacity of just 8,160 at their tiny Stade Pierre Rajon.

Last Saturday, they met Stade Toulouse and moved the fixture to the Stade Gerland in Lyon, home of the soccer Champions League semi-finalists Olympique Lyonnais. In an instant, even a sell-out 8,160 was transformed into a 30,000 crowd.

By any measure or means, these are extraordinary figures. What they reveal is a clear desire among a healthy percentage of the sports viewing population in both England and France to pay to see good quality rugby matches in top notch stadiums. As far as I'm aware, Bourgoin haven't sold out their crumbling old stadium once this season. Yet the minute they move to the major commercial hub of Lyon, they draw 30,000.

The man who started all this in France and England was Stade Francais owner Max Guazzini, the most innovative businessman rugby union has seen either side of the Channel in decades. I remember talking with Guazzini at his Paris office a year or two back, not long after he'd filled the 80,000 capacity Stade de France for an ordinary Top 14 league game between Stade Francais and Biarritz Olympique.

He smiled, and confessed "The first time we did this, when I was driving to the Stade de France for the game, I thought to myself 'You must be mad – how can we sell enough tickets to meet our costs for this event'".

But that was just the point. Guazzini made these matches 'an event' and people have flocked in ever since for them, in both France and England.

Now no-one is saying that if Saracens played every home game at Wembley, they'd get nearly 50,000. Nor do Toulon believe they could virtually sell out the atmospheric Velodrome in Marseille for every match of their season.

But it is perfectly possible to discern a serious trend here. Which leads me back to the Heineken semi-finals. Why on earth wouldn't ERC twice come close to selling out Paris, or the San Siro, Milan or Croke Park, Dublin for two matches of the magnitude of their semis?

The likes of Saracens, Toulon and Bourgoin are proving the point by their ambition.