So where was the crowd?

In the event the official attendance was 25,584.

 

For a semi-final of rugby’s premier club tournament, and a match featuring a team from the home city, the lack of atmosphere and paying customers was an embarrassment. Twickenham has a capacity of 82,000, but the upper and middle tiers stood solemnly empty.

 

One columnist blamed the lack of fan appeal of Saracens, as their pragmatic decision to build a stadium holding just 10,000 ostensibly showed. However, when Saracens have played the occasional game at Wembley they have consistently attracted crowds around the 40,000 mark. So we must assume the majority of these were “non-core” fans attracted by the prospect of a day out watching live sport.

One of the attractions must have been that tickets were offered at a much cheaper rate than normal. I speak as someone who was looking forward to a trip to Twickenham to see Sarries play Toulon, but when I was asked to pay £35 to sit behind the posts watching the game on T.V. was a much more attractive proposition.

 

Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths refused to lay the blame at ERC’s door, even though it was they who had set the ticket prices. Reading between the lines however, it was plain that if Saracens had had control over prices they would have been a lot more flexible and innovative when it came to filling seats. After all this is a club with a proud history of marketing innovation.

 

Derek McGrath, the chief executive if European Rugby Cup Ltd, had specifically rejected calls for discounted tickets to be made available, and insisted over-pricing was not to blame.

 

However, Griffiths also said that there is “probably” something inherently wrong with a competition for clubs being run by unions, and this points to the wider issue where English and French clubs have been at loggerheads with ERC for almost a year over the future format of the tournament and, crucially, who should be allowed to run it.

Are Sarries onto a winner?

Are Sarries onto a winner?

 

I recently paid my first visit to Saracens’ new home at Allianz Park to see the boys from Barnet experience a comfortable 47-17 win against Worcester Warriors.

 

Much has been made of the artificial pitch at the Allianz, and that the synthetic surface suited Sarries was clear. Opposition coach Richard Hill was not in favour, as “it creates a different type of game and I’m definitely a grass man” which is ironic in a way as he was put out to grass a few days later by Worcester, though no doubt due in large part his team hadn’t  won away from home this year.

 

As someone who can remember Queens Park Rangers artificial pitch of the 1980‘s and the chorus of damnation heaped upon it from everyone outside W12, here in N4 the ball’s bounce seemed unaffected  and the purchase given to players must be infinitely preferable to that  witnessed in the Home Internationals at the Stade de France and Aviva Stadium.

 

How much would a team like Harlequins not benefit from playing on such a surface on a regular basis? It was clear from the TV coverage of the Heineken Cup quarter final against Munster that a pitch severely affected by recent prolonged snow and rain was having a material effect.

 

How many years before most premiership grounds have some sort of artificial surface? Already Cardiff Blues have confirmed that they are looking at installing an artificial surface at their Arms Park base, and that it would be the same 4G (isn’t that a phone network?) installed by Saracens.Their chief executive Richard Holland told the South Wales Echo:”the way the Arms Park pitch is in the winter months, we are aware of the quality of the spectacle for our paying public who don’t want to see 30 blokes rolling around in the mud.” The Blues were Saracen’s first opponents on the Allianz Park pitch in January for an LV= pool game.

Mud is fine for many levels of the game of rugby, but not at the top level, and not at the prices being charged to watch rugby.

Margaret Thatcher, an artificial pitch…and some rugby

Sunday April 14 2013

Saracens v Worcester Warriors

@ Allianz Park. Kick-Off 15.00.

Aviva Premiership: Round 20

West Stand:Block 23:Row A: Seat 156:£30.00

 

Saracens…47

Worcester…17

 

 

Saracens have been making a load of hay out of the fact that their Allianz Park pitch can be used every day of the year rather than for eighty minutes once a fortnight. Indeed Chairman Nigel Wray was emphasising this same message in his programme notes. He also wrote of another plus. ..That, adjacent to the M1 and the North Circular it is “without doubt the best located ground in the country.”It may be for you Nigel, with your reserved parking space but for the rest of us mortals getting to your “home” presents a few more problems. Car parking around the ground is very limited, and all the streets in a mile radius have signs warning calcitrants not to park there on “event days”

The club’s web site lists various alternatives using public transport, but bearing in mind that this was a Sunday, and various bits of the tube and train network tend to be out of action then getting to Hendon provides an additional challenge, especially, if, like me you are travelling from west London. The best option appeared to be the Piccadilly line to Bounds Green, and then a 30-minute bus ride on the 221 to near the ground. My rule of thumb is that once you get near the ground you will just need to follow other fans. But there seemed to be a suspicious absence of them on this particular service, and just when doubts were beginning to set in the bus pulled up outside Copthall Sports Centre, and  what the website describes as a five-minute walk to Allianz Park. And just in case you had the urge to wander the suburban streets of Hendon the club had laid on Olympic-style volunteers to point the unitiated in the right direction.

 

The ground itself is a curious mixture of the new and permanent, like the East Stand, and the West Stand, where I was sitting in the front row. This is clearly designed to be removed when the season ends to let the athletes in. My feet were resting on the running track. I also uttered a quiet prayer of thanks to the weather gods. This part of the ground is not under cover, and had the game been played 24 hours earlier I would have been soaked.

 

 

Saracens were already top of the Premiership pile and a win today would have guaranteed them a home Premiership semi-final. They were up against a team in no danger of relegation and who hadn’t won away from home in an awful long time. Pre-match the other main topic of discussion was the planned minutes silence for Margaret Thatcher. “It was a question of respect, it wasn’t political” claimed Sarries’ chief executive Edward Griffiths,I’d like to think with some sense of irony. She had been the local M.P. and there didn’t appear to be much opposition among another sell-out crowd.

That Allianz Park’s synthetic surface suited Saracens was clear again .Worcester coach Richard Hill was not in favour, as “it creates a different type of game and I’m definitely a grass man.” The highlight was David Strettle’s 25-minute hat-trick, but it scored well for coach accessibility too judging from the short time it took Sarries’ head coach Mark McCall to reach the touchline. He had raced to remonstrate with the officials after his scrum-half Neil de Kock had been flattened by an unpunished high tackle.De Kock was led away to the wonderfully named “Concussion Bin.”

It is rare to see McCall so enraged, but that it took the incident to animate him testifies to his players’’ hunger after he made nine changes. The contest was as good as over before Josh Drauniniu crossed for Worcester after half an hour. Chris Ashton finally got on the score sheet with a late try, but by then the game had lost all its rhythm due to the inevitable onslaught of substitutes.. To be honest I missed both his and Wray’s try in injury time. I was already embarking on the long trek back to west London.

 

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