Heineken Semi-Finals: Superstar sell-outs or damp squibs?

Heineken_Cup_logo_2013There was an interesting article in The Guardian this week, by rugby correspondent Paul Rees, entitled ‘Heineken Cup torn between a rock and an empty place for semi-final crowds’.  In summary, it talked about the frustration among European clubs (Aviva Premiership ones in particular) in staging semi-finals at national stadia which, given the very quick turnaround from the quarter-finals, tend to attract a crowd which falls a long way short of capacity.  The article pointed out that this is a much bigger problem in England than anywhere else on the continent because of a lack of ‘middle-capacity’ grounds.  Whereas Wales can turn to the City of Cardiff Stadium or Swansea’s Liberty Stadium, there seems to be a reluctance in England to approach venues such as the Madjeski Stadium in Reading or Coventry’s Ricoh Arena to accommodate these ‘middle-sized’ crowds.  Sure, Twickenham’s available and Saracens are (roughly) a London club so you can see why administrators would choose to stage a game as big as a Heineken Cup semi-final there (especially in a year when the showpiece will be played away from HQ and at the Millennium Stadium instead – this is a competitive business after all).  But it will seem strange if Saracens vs Clermont is played out in front of less than 30,000 this weekend…which is a real possibility.

But this has got Red Rugby thinking (THOUGHT ALERT! THOUGHT ALERT!):

There’s been quite a lot of print recently dedicated to the size of rugby crowds (large, small or middling).  This has been a particularly popular topic amongst Welsh fans and journos alike in recent years and is usually framed in the context of ‘What can be done to turnaround the ailing Welsh regional rugby crowds?’  Last weekend, Cardiff hosted the second ‘Judgement Day’ – a double-header of games between the four regional sides.  It attracted an (Easter Sunday) crowd of just over 30,000.  In 2013, the inaugural event attracted 36,000.  Both days were met with a considerable amount of derision among Welsh fans who viewed such attendance as paltry especially when you look at recent examples from other countries

  • ‘London Double Header’, Saturday 7 September 2013, Aviva Premiership, Twickenham Stadium: Attendance of 62,637
  • ‘Saracens vs Harlequins’, Saturday 22 March 2014, Aviva Premiership, Wembley Stadium: Attendance of 83,889
  • ‘Leinster vs Munster’, Saturday 29 March 2014, RaboDirect Pro12, Aviva Stadium: Attendance of 49,800

Bumper crowds I’m sure you’ll agree.  But here are three other games recently played at national stadia:

  • ‘Saracens vs Toulon’, Saturday 27 April 2013, Heineken Cup Semi-Final, Twickenham Stadium: Attendance of 25,584
  • ‘Chiefs vs ACT Brumbies’, Saturday 3 August 2013, Super Rugby Final, Waikato Stadium: Attendance of 25,000
  • London Wasps vs Gloucester’, Saturday 19 April 2014, Aviva Premiership, Twickenham Stadium: Attendance of 38,294

Now, Red Rugby isn’t saying that criticism shouldn’t be made of the ‘Judgement Day’ events.  As the figures above show, they could be better…but they could also be worse.  Yes, improved marketing, better scheduling and a consistently better standard of rugby from the Welsh teams could increase the attendance at these Millennium-held matches but it’s important not to be too blinded by headlines from across the border or the Irish Sea.  ‘The grass is not always greener…’ and all that.  Underwhelming crowds at rugby matches could also be the result of ‘end of season fatigue’ – the point where fans have long ditched the optimism from September (when anything was possible) and instead have taken up a more pragmatic “Oh, I’ll leave it till next year when they’re actually playing for something” approach.  There is, after all, nothing worse for any sporting team looking to draw a crowd than ‘mid-table mediocrity’.  Teams who occupy these positions usually have nothing to play for: no chance of silverware but no fear of relegation.  Of course in Wales, there is never a fear of relegation and so interest among fans can only be stoked by a tilt at the title and/or qualification for Europe.  Let’s hope the new qualification rules for next year’s continental competition will inject a bit more life into the Pro12 and the Welsh rugby regions alike.  You can be sure that had a Welsh team been playing in this weekend’s Heineken semis a large crowd would have watched them.  Looking at it that way, a crowd of over 30,000 for games with little at stake is not bad.  Could be better, but not bad.

Looking ahead to those that actually made this year’s semi-finals, Red Rugby would agree with Jeremy Guscott’s prediction of wins for Clermont and Toulon.  A repeat of last year’s final at the Millennium it is then.  Expect a few more than 30,000 for that one.

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