Principality Stadium's famous atmosphere is spilling over into something more sinister

The match between Wales and South Africa will see almost as much scrutiny of what goes on off the field as what happens on it

Sam Peters
Friday 01 December 2017 23:40 GMT
The stadium in Cardiff has seen crowd difficulties
The stadium in Cardiff has seen crowd difficulties (Getty Images)

Where the line is crossed between passion and hostility is often in the eye of the beholder but some observers in Cardiff this autumn have felt increasingly uneasy about some fan’s behaviour going way too far.

The WRU might be at pains to point out arrests have not increased while rugby matches remain among the easiest events to police at the Principality Stadium, but anyone who witnessed a steward being head-butted last Saturday in full view of the press box before hearing a disabled man had been verbally abused in the most vile terms, must have concerns about the naked hostility of some fans. Alcohol, it can't be denied, is playing its part.

The Principality Stadium is rightly acknowledged as one of the great venues in the world in which to play and watch sport, generating a gladiatorial sense of theatre which few stadiums can match.

At their best, Wales fans can lay claim to being the best, and certainly the most vociferous, on earth. But, much like their team, the performance of some Welsh fans has been significantly below par this autumn.

The match between Wales and South Africa will see almost as much scrutiny of what goes on off the field as what happens on it. There is a mood to change tack completely.

Some are talking seriously about banning alcohol inside the ground.

The story which emerged this week about Robin Hindle-Fisher – already the victim of the thalidomide scandal which saw unknowing mothers prescribed an anti-morning sickness drug which led to 1000s of babies dying and 1000s more left severely deformed in the 1950s and 60s and of which the morons who abused him would surely have known nothing of – being verbally abused by a group of so-called fans inside the ground made any right-minded human being feeling sick to the very pit of their stomach.

Beth Fisher, whose uncle was the victim of the tirade from a handful of thugs who’d allegedly drunk eight pints each during the course of the first half between Wales and New Zealand, was shocked by their response after being asked to sit down in order to allow others to see the game.

"It was a moment I don't ever want to go through again," she said. "Quite frankly, it's put me off going back to the rugby again.

"This is not just about physical remarks about my uncle, it's about verbal abuse at a rugby match we were all there to enjoy.

"Having spoken to people after, I know I am not the only one and this is becoming a serious problem.

There will be attention both on and off the pitch
There will be attention both on and off the pitch (Getty)

"This was the most horrible feeling I've ever had at any public event."

Rugby, a game lauded for its family values, respect and decency, cannot tolerate this. The sport simply can't afford to lose its unique selling point which has, over decades, provided those attending stadia an unwritten guarantee they will not be exposed to the sort of vitriolic extremes which have, sadly, become the norm inside some football grounds over the years. Lose that unwritten code and rugby loses its soul.

Like it or not, there is an issue in Wales which needs addressing. In 16 years of covering rugby union, I have never witnessed such virulent abuse of opposition players as I witnessed at first hand last week while covering Wales' encounter with New Zealand. One male steward was head-butted and punched in clear view of the press box midway through the second half.

The middle-aged aggressor was led away by police, hissing and snarling as he went, but few in the crowd took the time to demonstrate their own disgust at his actions. Many reverted to the obscene hand gestures and vitriolic abuse they were reserving for New Zealand’s players and the referee, Wayne Barnes.

Last week, in Cardiff, the line was crossed too many times for it too be shrugged off as banter or lads letting their hair down. Some of the behaviour on show was a disgrace.

There were calls this week for the sale of alcohol to be completely banned in and around the ground before kick off. That would be a travesty. Rugby fans down the years have been trusted to self-regulate and essentially know their limits when it comes to booze. But some feel the line is being crossed too often in Cardiff on match-days.

A WRU statement read: “The safety and enjoyment of supporters is of paramount importance and the stadium operates a very strict alcohol licensing policy. We are legally bound not to serve people who look intoxicated and we employ ex-Police Licensing Officers on site to reinforce this.

“We work closely with South Wales Police to communicate the importance of responsible drinking to supporters in the build up to the event and in and around the stadium on match-days. In addition, we employ many more stewards than we are legislated to do, in the interest of monitoring crowd behaviour. Our stewards will remove supporters who are intoxicated and/or causing disruption to fellow supporters or behaving in a manner requiring police involvement.”

Only the most one-eyed can deny some sections of the crowd inside the Principality stadium have, in recent weeks, gone too far. The steward who was head-butted certainly thought so. The Hindle-Fisher family thought so. I thought so.

It’s time for the vast majority of decent, passionate and loyal Welsh fans to stand up to rotten apples in danger of poisoning the barrel with their booze-soaked abuse. They need the support of the WRU and police. True fans should be encouraged to call out others for verbally abusing officials, players and fellow fans and not feel intimidated by the mob.

Self-policing is the only answer. Call these idiots out for what they are and bring some dignity back to the stands.

If a stance isn’t taken soon, the experience of watching rugby in Cardiff could change forever.

Wales fly half Dan Biggar said this week the performance of Wales against South Africa on Saturday could define the autumn for Warren Gatland’s team. The same could be said of the crowd. It’s time for the Welsh supporters to remind us why they’re the best in the world.

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