Friday, April 25, 2014

Heineken Cup: Questions Resurface over England´s Failures

After becoming champion of the world in 2003 the English national team was in a unique position - it was ripe for expansion to become a much more powerful and popular entity. The general English population was available for the conquering. But RFU policies neglected the opportunity as the world´s richest rugby union failed to move any match away from Twickenham and the union continues to exclusively have England play all home test matches at Twickenham Stadium in London. This is the case even now, one year before hosting the World Cup.

The RFU´s position is one based on putting rugby second. The priority is for the financial boxes to be ticked. The RFU is, afterall a business, but it is so focused on the economic aspects that the sporting ones have been cast aside for far too long. The RFU is the wealthiest union in the world but the national team has dropped away from being the undisputed number one side in the world and remains distanced from the top three.

The post 2003 opportunities were mishandled or even ignored as no matches were relocated outside of London, no Aviva Premiership Semi Finals were hosted in big stadiums around the country and the Aviva Premiership itself fell behind the Top 14. The rise of the Top 14 to being the richest competition in the world was significantly aided by differing policies in France adopted by both the FFR and the LNR.

France played test matches in a variety of stadiums before and after Rugby World Cup 2007. France hosted Canada in Nantes several years before the Canadians faced Wales at the same venue. Lyon hosted France v New Zealand in 2006 while the All Blacks faced Portugal at the same venue in the World Cup. France hosted Argentina in Marseilles in 2004 and 55,000 were on hand to see Argentina v Namibia in 2007.

There are no such instances in England of this occurring and nor will there be before the World Cup begins in September 2015. The consequence for the club game is that Heineken Cup Semi Finals are not as marketable in England as they are in France or Ireland. For the second consecutive year Twickenham is to host a Saracens Semi Final to a crowd of under 30,000 and the club given home advantage has voiced its insatisfaction with the venue selection for the Heineken Cup Semi Final.

The Saracens club has excelled at hosting big matches at Wembley Stadium but doing so over a long term period to allow for a complex marketing campaign. On short notice the club is unable to promote a fixture such as the big match tomorrow against Clermont Auvergne. Saracens Chief Executive Edward Griffiths said if Saturday's game were staged at either Clermont or Allianz Park, the ground would be packed; no doubt at all.

Be that as it may the capacities of the two venues are too small for a Semi Final and neither stadium should be utilized to host a Semi Final of a competition as prestigious as the Heineken Cup. Indeed, were the fixture to have been allocated to a French city then there would not be over 50,000 unsold tickets. Such is the evidence that what Griffiths ought to have in fact said is that Twickenham is not capable of hosting a Semi Final on short notice.

Clermont played Heineken Cup Semi Finals in France in 2012 and 2013 and did so in cities located far from Clermont and with fullhouses. Clermont took on Irish province Leinster in front of 32,397 supporters in Bordeaux in 2012 and in 2013 Montpellier was full with 31,259 in attendance against Munster. Both stadiums hosted four Rugby World Cup matches in 2007 and have hosted internationals between France and other Tier 1 sides in subsequent years.

Either venue could have hosted and been sold out for a Semi Final such as Clermont v Saracens as could have other Rugby World Cup 2007 venues in the cities of Lyon or St. Etienne which are far closer to Clermont. Leeds is closer to London than Montpellier is to Clermont yet no efforts have been made to have key English cities hosting such fixtures.

The success of international matches at the stadiums has seen clubs relocate Top 14 and Heineken Cup fixtures to the same stadiums and the ERC doing likewise. In other words, all parties have gained by the spreading out of fixtures in France and it has contributed to the Top 14 becoming as powerful as it is today. Such a visionary approach is lacking in England where many clubs continue to hold on to amateur values while big cities are increasingly taking over from small, South-Western towns in France.

The lesson for England is clear - test matches can no longer be exclusively played at Twickenham. One test per year must be moved as should other big matches including Aviva Premiership Semi Finals. Indeed a lack of moving matches has contributed to Wales being allocated eight matches for Rugby World Cup 2015 and the northern half of the country receiving just six. Many of the largest English cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham failed to secure any Tier 1 v Tier 1 Rugby World Cup matches while Wembley landed the biggest match of Pool C. 

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