After what was a difficult week for a proud Englishman like myself, watching the resignation of one of our country’s greatest sporting icons from his post as England Team Manager, it was time to get back to what makes rugby the enduring passion it is by watching some top class action.
And what a day I chose to go to a match! Accompanied by my 10-year-old youngest son I took the hour and a half drive from my house and headed for the south-west French city of Toulouse in absolutely glorious November sunshine for a hotly-anticipated Heineken Cup encounter. Bizarrely, though, it wasn’t the red and black shirted Stade Toulousain who were in action at the compact and normally atmospheric Stade Ernest Wallon. But rather near neighbours Castres Olympique, who were there to take on the Irishmen of Munster in Pool 1.
Now the policy of moving attractive fixtures to bigger grounds isn’t exactly unheard of in Europe’s premium club competition, particularly here in France. The general modus operandi, however, has either been for teams from the south (usually Perpignan and Biarritz) to hop over the border into Spain to throw a touch of the exotic into the mix, while increasing their capacity options in Spanish soccer stadiums. Or for the capital clubs of Paris to shift into the Stade de France in a show of both bravado and strength.
On the evidence of what I saw at the weekend the logic of Castres’ decision to move less than an hour down the road is perhaps a little harder to fathom. The Stade Ernest Wallon has a capacity of 19,500 in comparison to the 11,500 who can fit into Castres’ natural home, the Stade Pierre-Antoine. Presumably the thinking must have been that this attractive fixture against an outfit with traditionally strong away support would attract people in their droves and would therefore help Castres turn a healthy profit from a match that would be played in front of an enthusiastic, sold-out crowd. As it transpired the move produced quite the opposite effect in terms of bums on seats.
Yes, I know that the ground in Toulouse has many more corporate hospitality boxes and that there was potentially a big financial upside for Castres in flogging them off to a well-heeled clientele. But financial gain in this one particular area surely wasn’t the only side of the story here.
The official attendance was recorded as 13,500, 6,000 short of capacity. And we’ll have to take the adjudicators at their word. But inside the ground I have to say that the crowd looked far smaller than this. There were great swathes of empty seats behind both sets of posts, together with large chunks that were conspicuously absent of people all the way along the side of the ground that faced our own seats. Never have 13-and-a-half thousand people looked so spartan. And no matter how many times the PA rabble-rouser tried to tell us that Castres had turned the place into Stade Pierre-Antoine for the afternoon, the only sense within the place was that the atmosphere was totally soporific. And not even Munster’s typically passionate fans could make any difference to that.
The powers-that-be at Castres miscalculated badly and an opportunity for the match to be played out in a white-hot home atmosphere was sadly lost. This half-empty ground looked frankly terrible on live TV, as my wife confirmed, and while the corporate hospitality might well have worked on the day, there’s an argument that repeat business will be hard to come by in future if corporate clients turn up to see a match that seems to have little interest for the general paying public and where there’s barely any atmosphere inside the ground.
I remember seeing Munster play a Heineken Cup game in Castres a few years back and there seemed to be thousands upon thousands of Irish men and women in the stadium. This time there were distinctly fewer traveling supporters, but that’s no surprise. The less fiscally-challenged members of the rugby community seem to forget that there’s a financial crisis going on for most of us and we simply don’t have the disposable income to jet off for the weekend these days.
And while rugby’s clearly growing as a sport, it’s still very much a minority spectator attraction in comparison to, say, football. While there’s talk of more and more money to be made, of global club tournaments and what have you, the Castres experiment proved to me that rugby isn’t a sport that was ever destined to be mass, mass, mass market – at least not in Europe. Its rules are too complicated for starters. And let’s face it, you can’t even see where the ball is half the time! But it’s rugby’s very idiosyncrasies that make us fans love it so. Maybe there’s some snobbery going on here that we need to admit to, but many of us actually like the fact that rugby is a minority sport. A big minority sport, for sure, but never a sport that’s destined to be globally dominant. And if the south-west of France, one of the most rugby-daft places on the planet, can’t sustain an experiment like the one undertaken by Castres last weekend and pack out a ground, then shouldn’t we be very, very careful before we start biting off more than we can chew?
Taking rugby to new markets, introducing innovative plans to capture more eyeballs, wanting to woo the corporates and thinking outside the box are all good things, of course. But these approaches all need to be tempered with a certain level of realism. After all, even if they won’t openly admit it you can’t help but wonder whether the Castres management aren’t asking themselves whether they would have won the game against Munster if they’d been on their own turf, in front of a packed and partisan crowd willing them to win. And wins generate sustained interest. And probably in the long term make more money into the bargain. As it was, Munster took the spoils – and deservedly so – with a last-kick-of-the-game winning drop goal from Ronan O’Gara.
When victory or defeat comes down to such small margins it’s the little things that count. And in my view Castres’ vainglorious project finally contributed to their downfall, both on and off the pitch.