It is some weeks since the organisers of the home World Cup in 2015 took the most important single step towards making the global tournament fit for purpose by producing a fixture list that was something other than scandalously skewed towards the major contenders. Some of the so-called “minnow” nations might remain at a disadvantage, but the likes of Samoa and Italy – serious rugby nations who had grown used to being treated with contempt by the programme planners – will not be expected to play all four of their pool games in five minutes flat.
Those same organisers took another positive stride forward by unveiling a progressive ticketing policy that was fairer and more reasonable than it might have been. Not that the Rugby Football Union has turned Marxist overnight: premium viewing at the Twickenham final will cost upwards of £700; the best seats for the quarter-finals and semi-finals are hardly a snip at £500-plus; some tickets for the major pool games, including those featuring England, will set you back 41 times the current living wage rate. How on earth will Prince Harry afford it?
Yet the provision for children – every group match, including such show-stoppers as England-Wales at Twickenham, will offer cheap tickets for kids – is a welcome development and it comes as a pleasant surprise that rugger-buggers of the fully grown variety will be able to watch the Wallabies at Villa Park or the Springboks at the Olympic Stadium for £20 a throw. To be able to pop along to Kingsholm and see Tonga against, say, Georgia for the price of a round of beers is quite something in this day and age.
Where the announcement was not fair and reasonable, or anything like it, was in the timing of late kick-offs on major match days. The notion of arriving at Twickenham for an 8pm start on a Saturday night is gruesome enough. The idea of leaving the stadium, along with 82,000 others, some time after 10pm borders on the nightmarish. If you live in the area, you are now officially at risk of being trampled to death in the stampede of railway staff seeking voluntary redundancy.
This is a broadcasting call pure and simple, whatever was said to the contrary by the organisers, so praise be to the Great God Television – a contradictory beast that somehow achieves the simultaneous feats of giving life to professional sport while killing it at a touch. Not for the first time (and sure as eggs, it won’t be the last), the match-day experience for the man, woman and child in the street has been sacrificed on the altar of the small screen. Fancy a convivial drink and a chewing of the fat after paying top dollar to watch England fight it out with Australia? Go for the “Sunday lunchtime in the local” option, on the basis that you might just have made it home by then.
It is tempting to wonder whether these people will ever learn. Back in 2011, some bright spark came up with the idea of scheduling the Six Nations game between Wales and England on a Friday night, thereby ensuring a rush-hour traffic jam that started in one of the competing countries and ended in the other. There was, naturally enough, a delayed kick-off. There was also all manner of fun and games at Cardiff railway station, which, inexplicably, was not designed to handle the sporting equivalent of the Red Army invading its platforms all at once.
Friday-night fixtures were dropped thereafter, but only temporarily: soon, they will be back at a stadium near you. The supporters may hate them like poison, but what’s it to do with them? They’re only the public, after all.