Sometimes less is more
January 26, 2011
How long will supporters retain their passion for the Six Nations? © Getty Images
There should be more than a frisson of excitement building among European rugby fans with the Six Nations Championship due to kick-off a week on Friday but, sadly, it seems to be missing this year.
In days of yore England rugby fans would have been meticulously planning their biennial trip to Cardiff for months and would have the whole weekend mapped out. They would return home bleary-eyed sometime on Sunday celebrating the fact that they had been part of a great sporting weekend.
Stories would be regurgitated and embellished until the next trip. The same would be repeated for matches in London, Paris Dublin and Edinburgh. Every Five Nations international weekend was special - perhaps it was when it went to six that the magic started to fade?
My favourite tale came from the Edinburgh taxi driver I hailed to take me from the city to the airport a few years ago after a Scotland v England game. "Do you know Ystradgynlais?" He asked when he discovered I was Welsh. "I do, but how do you know it?" I replied.
He had apparently been called to take some Welsh supporters to Waverley Station on the Sunday morning after a Scotland v Wales match 10 years earlier. They were facing a 10-hour train journey home and were not looking forward to it.
They had also had a big win on the horses so one of them asked how much to drive them home instead. A deal was done and by the time they got to Wales they were all firm friends. My driver stayed in Wales for two or three days before returning home and every year since he had visited them if the match was in Wales and they had stayed with him when it was in Scotland. I worry that things like that just don't happen anymore, especially when one of the biggest matches of all - Wales v England - is pushed to a Friday night.
It is very easy to simply blame television - the all-consuming ogre that must be obeyed - but it is the national unions who must really take the blame. They demand more money every time the television contract is renewed and it is not unreasonable for the television companies to demand that matches are staggered so that they can show them live.
The downside is that most England supporters will be leaving Cardiff on Saturday morning - some are even complaining they cannot get out on Friday evening because there are no trains - and the whole rugby international weekend experience in Cardiff will be diluted.
With a Saturday afternoon kick-off every hotel and restaurant in Cardiff would be fully booked for Saturday night and Chippy Lane and the pubs would be doing a roaring trade until the early hours of Sunday morning. Next weekend it will be business as usual, which means a big loss to the local economy.
The sheer volume of international rugby has also helped reduce the excitement that used to bubble up at this time of year. In my day we were lucky to get one autumn international every two years when one of the southern hemisphere nations was touring. Now there are usually four in November, which has taken away the rarity factor. The old Max Boyce catch phrase 'I was there' no longer carries the same value.
Fortunately, ticket sales for the Six Nations seem more in demand than those for the November internationals, when Murrayfield, Cardiff and the new Lansdowne Road all had banks of empty seats, but the great Welsh migration to Edinburgh appears to be in terminal decline.
I played in three matches at Murrayfield where the crowd was estimated at over 100,000 - at least half of whom were Welsh (how the Princes St. shopkeepers loved them). The WRU have apparently taken only 5,000 seats for Murrayfield this year.
Injuries are the final curse. Although I missed a couple of matches in the southern hemisphere because of injury I did not miss one Home Championship match in seven seasons. It was the climax to the rugby year and you did everything to peak for it.
Now international players are required to peak for the November internationals, the Heineken Cup, the Six Nations and the climax to their domestic club championship - with the game becoming ever more physical it is taking its toll.
Friday's opener has already lost some of its lustre. England will be without their exciting new find Courtney Lawes, Tom Croft and their captain, Lewis Moody while Wales will almost certainly be hit even harder by the loss of their only two world class props, Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins.
One supporter I spoke to in Cardiff last week was talking of flogging his ticket because he felt Wales have no chance without them. Professionalism was always going to change the face of the game but somebody needs to take a hard look at the long-term ramifications of how it is evolving. Sometimes more is less and can kill the goose that lays the golden egg - if that's not too much metaphor mixing.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games
"Cheika's been phenomenal. He gives you an incredible level of mental strength." Tom Hamilton talks to Waratahs star Jacques Potgieter