Small crowd highlights game’s long stoppages
Among the spectators at the Stoop on Saturday, I noticed both positive and negative aspects of rugby
At the weekend, the attention of professional club rugby focused on the Stoop, where Harlequins played Bath in front of live spectators for the first time since the season resumed. Such was the interest that both Sky and BT Sport had full TV crews there and the BBC and TalkSport had radio teams. Around 2,700 spectators were allowed into the ground with at least two seats between bubbles of supporters and every other row of seats was vacant.
It was hugely important for the game that this experiment, regulated heavily by rules agreed between the club and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport went ahead without problems and Quins’ organisation was exemplary.
I purposely did not go in a professional capacity or as a guest in the limited corporate hospitality because I wanted to sit as a member of the public and have the same experience as the paying supporter. I was not broadcasting or writing during the game, just sitting and chatting to other members of the crowd. This is something that everybody who makes a living from rugby should do because it is all too easy to think that everyone experiences the game in the same way.
When you attend because it is your job, you are already engaged. When you are a paying fan, you need the game to engage you because you can leave any time you want.
So, what was it like?
Well, my experience showed the positives and negatives of rugby. Not just those dictated by atypical Covid-19 regulations, but also those of rugby in general.
Arriving at a prescribed time for a staggered entry into the ground; waiting in your seat to be released in groups after the final whistle and wearing a mask at all times was not ideal, but nor was it oppressive. Even limited numbers of people eating and drinking in groups before kick-off gave some atmosphere and the spontaneous reactions of the crowd during the game were infinitely preferable to pre-recorded crowd noise. It was also clear that the players appreciated having a live audience.
For the opening few minutes the crowd was upbeat and tried to compensate for their few numbers by being as vocal as possible, but gradually this drained away and it was not only because Harlequins were getting beaten and making numerous errors.
Nobody connected with Bath will, or probably should, care about the following points because they have pursued a simple and effective game plan during the restarted season. Their set-piece is good and their back three is potent. They are prospering by playing direct, simple rugby and punishing the many errors made by opponents. Rhys Priestland is in
This was not a dour, low-scoring contest – yet on occasions they shouted ‘Get on with it’
imperious form with the boot and they are beating teams that are trying to play pre-break rugby after an extremely limited preseason and a break of nearly five months. Free-flowing rugby takes time to perfect.
We should note that there were seven tries and 68 points scored in this game. It was not a dour, low-scoring contest and yet on numerous occasions the crowd was reduced to shouting, “Get on with it”.
The way rugby is now played is with brief bouts of intensely physical play and long breaks. These breaks are caused by many injury stoppages, which necessarily must be dealt with properly and fans understand this. What they do not understand is the tedious and drawn out way line-outs and scrums form.
Group meetings before each are allowed by officials who make little or no attempt to stop this and players naturally take as much time as they can to organise and physically recover.
This has a cyclical effect because fully recovered they can then fire into set-piece and breakdowns which, inevitably, leads to bigger collisions and more injuries, and so it goes on. Despite rugby being harder you rarely see players gasping and trying to recover whilst the ball is in play. Even when you might expect the strain to take its toll, in the last 30 minutes, this does not happen because teams can bring on nearly half a team that is fresh from the bench, and you have the same problem.
This staccato rhythm is deeply frustrating for spectators, but it isn’t noticed by those commentating, coaching or officiating because during the long breaks their attention is occupied.
Many fans round me made the comment that professional rugby has improved in terms of fitness, skills and pace, but it has become less easy to watch because it simply stops too often and for too long. The overall atmosphere of full crowds just about carries fans through these stoppages; limited crowds cannot do this.
The size of the crowd should not matter, this is a deeper-seated problem for rugby which needs to be addressed.
Unusual sights: Harlequins and Bath tussle at the Stoop, in front of spectators, who tried to be loud initially to make up for absences