Small crowd high­lights game’s long stop­pages

Among the spec­ta­tors at the Stoop on Sat­ur­day, I no­ticed both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive as­pects of rugby

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport | Rugby Union - Brian Moore

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

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