So hands up in the back of the country, who will be going to watch a live rugby game this weekend?
After England’s humiliating performance at the World Cup, Scotland’s failure to make the final stages, France’s strange journey to the final, Wales’s inspiring run and Ireland’s game of two halves, what will the fans make of it all.
The Heineken Cup has been one of the great successes of professional rugby. Sure there’s been a blip every now and then, when either the English (comme d’habitude) or the French throw the toys out of the pram. But by and large, the whole thing has been a riot.
Of course, without France the whole thing might have been lost in a shroud of British and Irish winter fog. But the splendid Gauls lift our tired and frozen winter souls. Over the years there has been the sunshine of Biarritz, the ridiculous pink shirts of Stade, the glam foreign imports, the big boys of Toulouse, the wine and the sausages and the fist fights, the flighty wings and the brutal scrummaging front rows.
Ireland too has played a big part in recent times. All who go to Thomond Park, a ground that looks as exciting as the grey Atlantic from a distance, are flattened by the fervour. And following on from Munster came Brian O’Driscoll and Leinster, an Ireland team that wanted to be part of the dance. Leinster and Munster set a record for a club rugby match of 82,000 when they met at Croke Park in 2009.
But will people still want to go to matches after this World Cup. O’Driscoll has taken a break and I wonder if the fans will feel the same. The pools just don’t seem quite so glitzy as in previous years. Hopefully the Welsh crowds will lift on the back of the national team’s efforts, but Munster against Northampton on Saturday evening should be a good test of the general mood.
Certainly New Zealand did not want much to do with rugby before the World Cup. The Super 15 attendances were appalling. The weather, the evening kick-offs, the forthcoming World Cup, the Christchurch earthquake, all were blamed. But most of the people I talked to said they were suffering from rugby fatigue.
But out there in sports land lie a couple of very interesting statistics. A quick quiz question – what sport comes fourth on the list of average attendance with 34,893, a fraction behind premier league soccer, and had an attendance of 99,537 at its final this year?
A: Aussie Rules.
Australia is obviously a very rich country at the moment, but maybe the Heineken Cup officials could pay a visit to see what the Aussies are doing right. The Rugby World Cup was still trying to sell tickets in the week of the semi. Why is Aussie Rules so attractive?
I would love to know the answer, as would officials all over the world. Good luck to the Heineken Cup on a weekend when the most interesting match may just be in Hull on Saturday, when Benji Marshall and the boys will be playing the other code. Let’s hope the Heineken gets a boost from the Rugby World Cup, but I am just a tad anxious.