Sitting in our seats in Wembley Stadium with a beer in hand is a somewhat unusual experience for me. Ninety five percent of my previous visits here have been for football, where fans are considered far too irresponsible to handle a beer AND watch a game at the same time. The fact that the stadium hadn’t seen a crowd of this size, ever didn’t cause an issue. Have you actually seen England play recently? You need some sustenance to numb some of the dullness. But swap your Engerland chant for a verse of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and you gain a level of social acceptability and responsibility. Four beers sir? Do you need a hand carrying them to your seats?
This was game three for me in the Rugby World Cup. Ireland taking on “plucky” Romania as they had been rechristened by ITV Sport after their opening game defeat to France in the White Elephant in Stratford. I’d seen that game as well as France’s first game at Twickenham against Italy. The atmosphere here at Wembley was different, far more partisan. Twickenham and the Olympic Stadium had been mainly full of fans of the game, some of whom felt the need to show their neutrality by having face paint of each country on their cheeks to go along with their half ‘n’ half scarves. Here though the stadium was awash of green. There would little in the way of cheer for a similar quarter performance as Romania gave on Wednesday against France.
The tournament was only 9 days old but had already thrown up a few surprises and talking points on and off the field. Japan’s defeat of South Africa was a major shock – although if the Springboks would have lost to say Argentina, who in turn would have lost to Japan it may have raised a Roger Moore eyebrow. Shocks in international rugby are few and far between. The stronger teams are just that – stronger. Power and pace go along way in rugby. Japan’s players played the game on their lives, matching South Africa in every push, scrum, maul and ruck. The longer the game went on, the more belief the Japanese had and the more doubt crept into the Springboks. They could play that game 50 more times and I doubt the Japanese would find the same resolve and spirit.
The result that the organisers probably didn’t want came last night when Wales beat England by 3 points, meaning the hosts have to beat Australia next Saturday to have any chance of progressing to the knock out phases. Defeat in that game and the final match against Uruguay could be for the wooden spoon in group A. With tickets still on sale for that match at The City of Manchester Stadium at a bargain £250, it will be interesting to see how many fans put their seats up for resale rather than go through the misery of trying to get to the game by a hopelessly I’ll-prepared train network.
The pain and problems they have caused at virtually every game so far it’s something that the organisers want as a legacy but so far fans who have tried to travel by train have been met with delays, cancellations and ill-preparation. On the opening weekend of the tournament as fans tried to travel to Cardiff for the Wales and Ireland games will have been dismayed to read First Great Western admit they had underestimated demand for services. They’ve only had four years to plan for this. Over at Twickenham last Saturday tens of thousand of fans on their way back to London after the game were forced to ‘tap in’ with their Oyster cards via 2 machines. Last night’s game at Twickenham finished after the last train had departed Paddington for Wales – either poor planning from the organisers or FWG again for not thinking of putting on extra services.
It’s never a good thing for a host nation to be eliminated early from a major tournament, but with such high expectations on England it could be a major blow for ITV as well as the commercial partners. The curious rugby fans sitting on their sofa may now channel surf instead of tuning in for England’s games. That’s not taking anything away from Wales – they’ve shown in recent years they are a major force in World rugby and few English fans will admit they didn’t want them to win four years ago in the Rugby World Cup semi-final in New Zealand against France.
Talking on ITV, they have got the coverage so far spot on – a huge improvement on their football coverage. Co-commentators who deliver insight rather than simply saying what we see. Studio guests who can be considered to be legends of the game, with presenters who realise their role is to not try to be the star of the show. Andy Townsend or Jonny Wilkinson? Glenn Hoddle or Sir Clive Woodward? Lee Dixon or Lawrence Dallaglio? Need I go on?
On the field we’ve seen the advantages and disadvantages of the use of video evidence. In the England v Fiji and France v Italy games tries were disallowed after the referee had awarded them and the conversation was about to take place thanks to use of the Television Match Official (TMO) who found a new angle to review the incident. They break up the flow of the game, although English referee Wayne Barnes showed how to use it to great effect by asking for reviews of events he didn’t see whilst play continued in the New Zealand v Argentina game, then punishing the guilty parties. There can be no argument that the way technology is used in rugby is far better than football. Referees with microphones so the crowd can hear conversations, video replays and even having equally-qualified as the referee touch judges who advise on decisions rather than stand powerless on the touchline.
Unlike football, rugby is a game that all of the Fuller family enjoy. Littlest Fuller (in age not height anymore!) can’t stand football but things nothing of watching grown men falling on top of each other. So we parked at Stanmore and headed down to Wembley early doors to savour the atmosphere. Despite arriving two hours before kick off, the fan zone was full. Only open to ticket holders you’d think that they may have thought people might want to go in there. Surely the organisers spoke to organisers of other events? At the Olympics, the fan zones were open to everyone, ditto any major football tournament. In both cases they certainly didn’t kick people out thirty minutes before kick off. So much for an all-inclusive tournament. Once again, little thought had gone into the demand for these aspects.
Once inside the stadium everything worked. Wembley handles crowds very well and we were in our seats twenty minutes before the teams emerged. We’d been promised a brilliant atmosphere – it was certainly loud but there was only a few chorus’s of Fields of Athenry as pockets of the Irish faithful were spread across the whole stadium rather than one concentrated area of dedicated support that you would see in the respective football tournament(s). The biggest cheers were saved for the Mexican Wave, which at least didn’t appear until the hour mark.
Ireland showed no mercy from the first second. The first passage of play lasted 3 minutes and seemed destined to end in a try but for a handling error. Two TMO decisions proved the majority of the crowd wrong with Simon Zebo’s skip down the touchline showing in super-slow motion that his twinkle-toes had just touched the white line on his way to scoring a great solo effort, whilst Tommy Bowe’s collision with the touch flag proving to be after he’d touched the ball down rather than before for the first of his two tries. Further tries from Earls (2), Kearney and Henry saw the Irish quickly rack up their bonus point on their way to 44 points, although Ovidiu Toniti’s late consolation try for Romania bringing a decent response from the majority of the crowd still in the stadium.
Despite the issues at other venues, the benefit of experience in handling big crowds was in evident as the tens of thousands of fans headed to Wembley Park tube station, being back in the car at Stanmore less than 30 minutes of the final whistle.
The tournament so far has thrown up a few surprises that may lead to one or two of the expected sides not reaching the knockout stages. But that’s exactly what we want from a major tournament, even if it is the hosts who are the casualties.