Empty seats will degrade semi-final
April 25, 2014
Saracens played Toulon in front of a sparse crowd at Twickenham last year © PA Photos
This time last year, the headlines in the press leading up to Saracens' Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulon focused around two factors. One was the return of Jonny Wilkinson to Twickenham and the other concerned the projected miserly attendance for the game.
In the end 25,584 attended the game. Before the semi-final Saracens' CEO Edward Griffiths admitted it was far from ideal but at the same time defended the role of the Heineken Cup organisers European Rugby Cup Ltd.
Heineken Cup semi-finals in England
Twelve months on and we are in exactly the same situation. ERC expects an even smaller attendance, somewhere in the region of 20,000 - to take in Saturday's match between Saracens and Clermont Auvergne. On the face of it, it will represent twice as many people as Saracens normally attract to home matches at Allianz Park, but it will be a poor advert for European rugby as broadcasters around the world showcase what promises to be a superb match in against a backdrop of empty seats
ERC puts the low turnout partly down to having just a three-week period in which to sell tickets. An ERC spokesperson told ESPN: "With a three week lead in time Heineken Cup semi-finals pose a particular challenge, with many fans having an eye on the final, and in England typically attract an attendance of 25,000 supporters. We have been working closely with Saracens and the RFU to drive interest levels for the Twickenham semi-final."
On the flip side, this does not seem to have deterred supporters on the other side of the Channel where 40,000 are expected to witness Toulon's game against Munster in Marseille. Toulon have made efforts to tempt their support down to Marseille with trains laid on at a special price and buses also available.
For Griffiths, who was speaking to the Mirror earlier this week, he believes the time has come for home advantage in the final four, something which happened pre-2000 in the tournament.
"We think a better idea going forward is to move away from neutral semi-finals and give home advantage to the team which qualifies with the highest seeding from the pool stages," he said. "The truth of the matter is that were Saturday's game being staged either at Clermont or at Allianz Park, it would be packed. No doubt at all."
This may be considered by the organisers of the new European Rugby Champions Cup next season.
Focusing on the present, the inability to sell more than 30,000 tickets for a Heineken Cup semi-final staged in England prompts a wider question. Is there a sense of apathy to the latter stages of the competition in England? Since 2000, the highest attendance for a semi-final hosted in England was 31,883 back in 2005 when Leicester played Toulouse at the Walkers Stadium, in Leicester. Contrast this to 2009 where 82,208 witnessed Munster's game against Leinster and 44,212 saw Cardiff Blues lose a place-kicking competition to Leicester the same year.
What is clear is more thought needs to be given to the venues that house these knockout matches. Twickenham should not be seen as a one size fits all option for teams based in and around London. Somewhere like the Madejski Stadium or Stadium:mk would have been a far better option with appropriate transport laid on.
One other option could be a double-header with both semi-finals happening on the same day at the same place. A large crowd packed into one of the premier stadiums in Europe is a better option than two low attendances split across the Channel.
Whatever the answer, the organisers of the new-look tournament need to address this ahead of next season's competition or risk embarrassment.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.