Does Club Rugby need to be marketed better?

Is rugby popular, or not very popular at all? The answer is, perhaps weirdly, both.
When it comes to international rugby, cup finals, or some annual “special” games, it attracts big numbers. 55,000 fans went to Murrayfield to see Saracens beat Clermont in 2017, 74,000 watched Wales beat Scotland, 82,000 watched England beat Wales and 67,000 saw Scotland turn England over. Indeed, pretty much every international game is a sell-out.

But step away from the cup and international arena into the Premiership and it’s usually a different story.

While in 2017 crowds were up by 10% to an average of 13,833, many clubs simply don’t seem to have much pulling power, much of the time. Last year, table-topping Wasps averaged just over 15,000 in the 32,000 capacity Ricoh arena, despite the fact you would be guaranteed to see some good winning rugby. Harlequins hosted Bath at The Stoop in front of a crowd of 7,450. That is less than Notts Count’s average attendance in the fourth tier of English football.

But it is a confused picture, because when Harlequins play the annual December “Big Game” at Twickenham, over 77,000 can turn up. It’s still Premiership rugby, but it’s a special occasion housed at Twickenham and apparently this makes it irresistible.

Small crowds at some of the grounds are obviously due to limited capacity. Exeter sit atop the league with a ground that holds just 12,800. While there’s nothing worse than being in a 35,000-capacity stadium with 25,000 empty seats, a severely restricted capacity could be a self-perpetuating unpopularity. Surely a side like Exeter who are going to finish first could attract a bigger crowd. After all, fans tend to flock to winners.

It would appear there simply isn’t a strong enough club culture to draw sizeable crowds for most league games, even though the quality of these games is not significantly worse entertainment. How to explain London Irish’s average attendance being about 8-10,000 at the 24,0000-capacity Madejski but 54,000 at Twickenham for the London Double Header?

Football has a tribal loyalty that seems largely missing from rugby. It may or may not mean fans are less blinkered and one-eyed, but it also means ties to the club are perhaps not as strong. Far fewer people turn up to every game out of loyalty, or even out of mere habit.

The reason for modest (if rising) crowds must actually be both cultural and structural. The lesson from the attendance gulf between “special” games and the rest must be that to pull bigger crowds, more games must somehow be made to be special. Indeed, it is essential for this to happen if the Premiership clubs’ finances to improve.


Aviva Premiership benefits from calendar mess

There has been a lot of talk this season about rugby’s messy schedule. Concerns over a lack of alignment between the hemispheres, internationals in the middle of the season, the sheer number of games players are involved in and the length of the Six Nations tournament are all concerns for the men at the top.

Sir Clive Woodward recently proposed a five-week tournament, in order to better mirror the knock-out stages of a World Cup. There is also a concern that the tournament robs the Premiership clubs of their players for too long.

Because of the added fallow weeks, that is seven weeks the clubs lose their top players over the Six Nations. There is a further four weeks over the Autumn Internationals, not to mention the various training camps. Most importantly of all, it equates to seven missed premiership matches. That is a third of the season and a possible 35 points up for grabs. To put that in context, Saracens finished last season on 80 points. 32 below them were Bath in ninth.

There was a stark reminder of the situation recently as Gloucester downed the defending champions Saracens, Sale defeated the current table-toppers Wasps, and Newcastle completed their double over east-midlands heavyweights Northampton Saints. Even second from bottom Worcester also beat Saracens. Back during the autumn series, Newcastle claimed an important win against Harlequins and that first against Northampton, and Wasps lost to Gloucester.

The clubs are financially compensated for the loss of their players – with a figure in excess of £200 million agreed between clubs and country – but there is still murmurings about devaluing the game for the fans, not to mention the ‘fair’ aspect; how can we have a tournament where the best teams lose their best players for a third of the matches? When the English football side play competitive internationals there are no Premiership or even Championship matches scheduled.

I will be honest – I don’t care. The crazy, messed up schedule with international players coming and going, is part of the reason to love the Premiership. It levels the playing field just the right amount and stops an elite few running away with it. The bottom teams go into these matches with a glint in their eyes. They know the best are there to be beaten when they are missing those one or two players that separate them from the rest. It also means the best teams cannot rest on their laurels – during the internationals they are exposed and there is an opportunity, not just for their opponents, but for their rivals to gain ground on them.

The play-offs also take care of the ‘fair’ criticism to a certain extent. The occasional loss by the top teams does not necessarily cost them the trophy, they must instead ensure they finish in the top four and all is to play for come May. It may split the difference for a team with regard to fourth versus fifth, or a home or away play-off place, or indeed a spot in the Champions cup, but no system is perfect.

Perhaps more importantly, it also is invaluable for bringing through emerging players. There is the Anglo-Welsh Cup and that plays a role in giving exposure to young players, but it is treated with such disdain by most clubs that often they are little better than b-fixtures anyway. They are definitely not the same as playing in a Premiership game.

I understand the reasons people are calling for the rugby season to be changed – particularly when it comes to player welfare and the madness that the best players may have as little as six weeks off playing to let their bodies recover before preseason starts. And of course, this is a myopic Premiership centred view – it impacts some of the clubs in the Pro12 far more acutely (how are Glasgow expected to be competitive when they lose 15 players to the Scottish squad?).

But I for one like the chaos it brings to the Premiership. It creates the environment for giant-killings by the bottom clubs and the international stars of the future to get proper and sustained exposure to top level rugby. Everyone wins like this.

Mike Miles

Another pool of death beckons

As sporting clichés go, “pool of death” has to be right up there among the worst, and it would have been a minor miracle if we hadn’t heard it again when the Champions and Challenge Cup draws took place. It seems to be an immutable law that there will be a pool of death in every competition, and, with the Champions Cup now down to just 20 teams, there might just be more than one of them.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERABut it is not only “Pool of Death” rivals Bath, Leinster, Toulon and Wasps who have reason to feel let down following the European Rugby Champions Cup draw.

The confirmation of next season’s battle lines overshadowed the announcement that the Grand Stade de Lyon will host the final, with that honour passing to Murrayfield in 2017.

It will be the fourth time that France have staged club rugby’s showpiece event and the third time that it has been played in Scotland while Italy are yet to play host to the final.

It is understood that the FIR (Italian Rugby Federation) did not bid to stage the latest final –with officials perhaps too busy fighting fires on the home front, what with a threatened strike by their leading players or appeasing their PRO12 partners when it comes to their participation fees.

But their continued absence from the list of hosts remains a problem for European rugby chiefs that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Italian sides may have struggled to make a significant impression on the competition but that does not excuse their marginalization when it comes to the final.

The Six Nations has shown that they are more than capable of hosting major rugby events and Italy’s sell-out clash against the All Blacks in 2009 illustrated that they are able to successfully market one-off games. Those facts should ease any commercial concerns and fears that the game may not sell out or catch the imagination of the wider sporting public.

Italian supporters and rugby fans in general would relish the opportunity to experience a final at somewhere like the Stadio Olimpico or the San Siro and it would boost the competition’s profile significantly.

If the FIR need a little help to get to that point it is time for their European partners to front up.

Mike Miles

Wasps leave Adams Park in rude health

Michael Miles from reports on the final day of Premiership rugby at Adams Park.

It has never been easy to love Adams Park. It sits at the end of an industrial estate, a cul-de-sac of deserted office and factory space on a Sunday, a bunged-up traffic black-spot, forlorn, uninspiring, a far remove from a raucous bear-bit. And it’s not even in London!

Wasps have not been a London club for a decade, but nomads for some while now, and have made a virtue of it, the waifs and strays that banded together and took on the world to such good effect.

You do wonder if the move to Coventry will work. You imagine how desolate the 32,000 capacity Rioch might be on match day with the diehards rattling around inside. It will be a case of starting over. When Wasps moved to Loftus Road they struggled to attract gates of more than 5,000. They have never managed to attract more than a decent smattering of supporters at Adams Park, a ballpark figure of 6,000.(Today’s attendance was 5842). Leicester even managed to pull in 22,639 for the visit of Newcastle. They now not only need their current fans to remain loyal, which will be difficult enough with travelling costs rising and more time needed to get home matches, but to attract thousands of new ones . It will take time.

Meanwhile, there was a game to be played.

Today’s match against hitherto winless London Welsh was the club’s final Premiership fixture at Adams Park. The last game of all is a European rugby Champions Cup match-up against Castres in four weeks. For the record, today’s was Wasps’ 131st Premiership game at Adams Park, but only the second against London Welsh. (The first game there was in September 2002, a 38-35 win over Bristol)

The Exiles are rock bottom of the Premiership, having gleaned one point, conceded 36 tries and 272 points in their opening six games. Now make that 47 tries and 343 points. Nathan Hughes got the ball rolling with a try with just a minute gone before Johnson,Sailosi Tagicakibau and Hughes again made it 26-0 at half-time. Things got completely out of hand for Welsh in the second period as Wade and Johnson completed their hat tricks while Tom Varndell and Joe Simpson also touched down to make it 11 tries in total for the hosts. At least Wasps ended their Aviva Premiership Rugby tenure at Adams Park in style.

Wasps to choose to be sent to Coventry

Wasps have dropped London from their name for the forthcoming season, and are now believed to be drawing up plans to relocate the club away from High Wycombe to the West Midlands, specifically Coventry City’s Ricoh Arena. Wasps are no strangers to the ground, having played a number of Heineken Cup games there in the past.

Land Rover have their headquarters in the area, and the new club sponsors are Land Rover owners Tata Motors, so read into that what you will….

Wasps would not be the only rugby team to have shifted location to find a permanent home in recent years, but there is no denying that those clubs who are leading such a nomadic existence are the ones who find it harder to create the home atmosphere found in the West of England or Leicester.

You can appreciate Wasps’ need to move and find a more suitable home , but surely it should be closer to their traditional home and not further away?”

Mike Miles –

Early Bath ends Wasps European dream

London Wasps 18 Bath Rugby 24 – Adams Park – Sunday 27th April 2014 – Amlin Cup Semi-Final by Mike Miles,
Weighing priorities can be a tricky business at this stage of the season. Next Friday, Bath face Northampton at The Rec in the penultimate round of Aviva Premiership fixtures, third against second, knowing that a victory would secure a top-four place for the first time in four years. For their part, Wasps knew that a home victory against Newcastle next Saturday would ensure seventh place and a play-off to qualify for the new Rugby Champions Cup next season.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAIn fairness to Bath they picked their strongest team, no doubt hoping for a place in May’s Cardiff Arms Park Final, and some momentum to take them into the final two weeks of the league season. After all, a trophy could mean much to a young, developing side, and this tournament represented Wasps’ only hope of getting hands on their first silverware since 2007.Today’s game was Wasps’ fifth European semi-final, their only defeat coming in the most recent, against Cardiff Blues in the Challenge Cup in 2010 when the Cardiff coach was Dai Young, the current occupier of the Adam Park hot seat.

The trophy cabinet at Bath has been neglected in recent years, but the club took a big step towards silverware with a powerful victory at Adams Park. Nick Abendanon and Matt Banahan are the only survivors from Bath’s last major final, against Worcester Warriors in the same competition in 2008. Bath drew on every ounce of their experience to secure a tight victory, and a place in the Final against Northampton Saints, who they could meet twice before that Cardiff date on May 23.
Bath had even trailed at the break, but fought back with two second half tries from former Wasps hooker Rob Webber. Despite dominating large parts of the second half, Bath had to withstand a fierce late rally by Wasps to secure their Final place.”We came up a little bit short, but that’s an image of most of our season,” said Dai Young afterwards. “We work our socks off but we give points away cheaply, which you can’t do against a quality team like Bath.”

As for Wasps, to ease the pain of defeat they have the goal of claiming the 20th place in the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup next season via a play-off against the seventh-placed French Top 14 side.

Wasps sting Gloucester and silence the Shed

“The Shed” at Gloucester’s Kingsholm stadium used to be known as the “Popular Enclosure”. But then, so the story goes, a London reporter referred to Gloucester’s facilities as being “no better than a shed” – and the name stuck. Chelsea football club had the infamous “Shed End”, which housed their hooligan element, and Peter Ford, a Gloucester legend, and one-time club president, is said to have gone bananas at the connotation.

Brian Moore tells a story about the Shed from his days as a Nottingham player. During one game, whenever he threw in from the lineout in front of the notorious terrace of Gloucester fans, a voice amid the standing masses would shout:”Moore, you’re a wanker.” Moore stewed over this abuse on the bus journey home and, indeed, for much of the year that separated him from his next trip to Kingsholm.

On this occasion, the abuse resumed just as before. But this time Moore was ready. Turning to his accused, he replied:”Yes, but at least I have to hold mine in both hands.” The response was allegedly so cutting and offensive that suffice to say Moore was left speechless once again, and his misery was complete.

Today’s visitors were London Wasps, and in days gone by their captain Lawrence Dallaglio would take his Wasps team to warm up in front of The Shed to feed off the hostility. It wasn’t unknown for him to give the Shedheads the v-sign.

Gloucester 30 London Wasps 32 – Kingsholm – Saturday 2nd November 2013
Perhaps it was the awful weather. Perhaps it was simply that the glory days of Dallaglio’s Wasps are firmly in the past. But from the relative comfort and sanctity of the JS Stand the Shed noise levels appeared subdued. What anger there was appeared to be directed at their own team reports Mike Miles.

Gloucester’s recent record is poor. Both Premiership matches had been lost. Losing at home to Exeter must have been bad enough, but going down to local rivals Bath bordered on the inexcusable. So the Kingsholm faithful must have looked at Wasps’ away record – no Premiership win on the road since February – and thought there would be no better opportunity to halt the slide.

Unfortunately for them the Londoners had Christian Wade, who may well have played himself into England contention with two brilliant tries. But Gloucester literally threw away a winning position. Wasps were 17-10 up at the break, but Gloucester pressured from the restart, and worked themselves into a three-point lead. But having worked so hard to gain the advantage they botched another restart. Gloucester coach Nigel Davies was at a loss to explain another patchy display, but Wasps didn’t mind. They had their first Premiership victory on the road since February, much to the chagrin of the majority of the 13,441 crowd.

Wasps finally find their sting

London Wasps 22 Newcastle Falcons 12 – Adams Park – Sunday 27th October 2013 by Mike Miles

There is an unwritten rule in the round ball game that a returning player will usually score against his old team. I’ve never come across such a scenario in rugby union, but perhaps it should.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAOn Sunday, it was a Tigers old boy, Andy Goode who proved the real irritant to them. In the wind and rain it was Goode who provided the experience in conditions that seemed to suit him perfectly. He scored 17 out of Wasps’ 22 points with three penalty goals (one from 60 metres on the angle), a conversion of the game’s only try, and two well-struck drop goals.

Leicester Tigers are the current Premiership champions, and are easily the most successful English side domestically in the past decade. Yet amazingly, they have not won at Adams Park since September 2007, when London Wasps were in their pomp. Since then the home side have flirted with relegation, if not extinction, but they have always managed to get one over the men from the East Midlands, who have been champions three times and got to six grand finals.

To be fair to Leicester they were missing 18 players, either injured or on international duty, but by their own high standards they were off colour. This was Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill’s first game back in charge after his nine-game matchday ban, but even he was sanguine about the situation. “We expect better”, he was quoted as saying afterwards.”Our standards need to be better, but in the context of our injuries you can’t be too hard on the guys.”

It can be strange watching Premiership rugby at this time of year. Whatever the injury scenario, the top clubs know they will be denuded of players due to the November internationals. So as a spectator you can’t help but feel cheated of watching the best players. After all, we have recently had two Premiership-free weekends due to World Cup qualifiers. So if rugby insists on carrying on, and the clubs know this is going to happen, how come none of them seem to consider lowering their admission prices in acceptance of the lower fare on offer?

In a couple of weeks the LV= cup takes over, but then at least you know you will be watching a lot of back-up players, and the clubs charge accordingly.

Adams Park is situated on the edge of an industrial estate on the outskirts of High Wycombe. It is not the easiest ground to reach, be it by car or public transport; though to be fair to the club they run various park-and-ride schemes, which in my experience, operate efficiently and well.

But the club’s real problem is that they are ground-sharing with a football club, and there will be no long term prosperity unless they play in their own stadium – though that prospect appears further and further off. Indeed, the latest rumour is that they will ground-share with Brentford F.C. when (and if) the latter move into a proposed new stadium near Kew Bridge railway station.

But that is for the future. I’ve always had a soft spot got Wasps, and when I saw the following story it endeared me to them even more.

As a reasonably well-established club by the late nineteenth century, Wasps were eligible to be founder members of the Rugby Football Union. A meeting was scheduled for January 26, 1871, for the formalities to take place. However, a mix-up led Wasps sending their representative to the wrong venue at the wrong time on the wrong day, and so was not present at the inauguration ceremony and forfeited their right to be called founder members. But the version I prefer is that he went to a pub of the same name and got so drunk he couldn’t make it to the correct venue.

But whatever the reason, Wasps have made up for it since.


Wasps lose their sting to the luck of the Irish

London Irish 30 London Wasps 19 – The Madejski Stadium – Sunday 24th February 2013
Apparently the Madejski Stadium was named the best stadium to watch rugby in England in a supporter’s survey conducted by Rugby World magazine during 2009/10. The home of London Irish claimed the top accolade in a survey of more than 1,500 rugby supporters, securing nearly a quarter of overall votes regarding which ground offered spectators the most comfortable match day experience. The survey praised the stadium’s shop and transport links, and nearly every fan who cited it as the best ground in terms of facilities mentioned the proximity to the M4 and large on-site parking area.

I have driven past the stadium on the M4 countless times so thought it was about time I actually paid a visit.

Ironically, the largest crowd for a London Irish match was for a game against today’s opponents London Wasps on March 15, 2008, when a crowd of 23,790 turned up. Today’s attendance by contrast, was a much more modest 7,184

As I drove slowly out of one of the Madejski’s car parks after the game I listened to the Scotland/Ireland 6 nations match on the car radio. Unlike in the past London Irish have contributed nobody to the current Irish team.

London Irish RFC was founded in 1898 for the young Irishmen of London, modelling itself on the already established London Welsh and London Irish teams.

It is a testament to the international state of the Premiership that the Exile’s current 36-man squad numbers only 4 Irishmen. Englishmen make up the biggest contribution with 17, and there are the almost obligatory 3 Tongans and 3 Samoans.

The clubs own website warned that “roads in the area are very busy, and queuing can be expected exiting the M4 and then all the way to the stadium” Forewarned I left home in plenty of time for the 12.05 kick-off and found myself enjoying a cup of coffee in the stadium concourse an hour before kick-off. Everybody, from car park attendants to programme sellers were very friendly and helpful, though it did sound slightly odd to be greeted with a “good morning” at a sports fixture. Such are the demands of television.

Both teams went into this match with different priorities. Wasps were fourth in the Aviva Premiership with their sights on at least a Heineken Cup spot for next season, and even a play-off place in this. The Exiles on the other hand were next to bottom, with only a single point between them and bottom club Sale. But after an impressive 30-19 win over the High Wycombe outfit they had climbed to 10th, five points ahead of Sale who they face along with fellow strugglers London Welsh and Worcester in their three remaining home fixtures.

Shane Geraghty and Marland Yarde both crossed the try-line, while full back Tom Homer added a total of 20 points from the kicking tee. Wasps even led 16-14 at half-time after a fine finish from Christian Wade, but the hosts stepped up a gear in the second half and were comfortable winners in the end. Wasps Director of Rugby Dai Young admitted that his team were never in control of the game.

The clubs website has a wonderful quote from that doyen of sports writers, the late Bryon Butler: “The only corner of heaven on earth can now be formally identified; it is an old rubbish tip beside the drumming infinity of the M4 in the Royal County of Berkshire. Rival claims will not be entertained for the time being.”

Perhaps the hyperbole may not be entirely justified, but nevertheless, it was a very enjoyable first visit to the Madejski Stadium.


Wasps cling onto Premiership survival by their fingernails

Based on my memories of watching London Wasps not so long ago in European Cup and Premiership finals, it takes some believing that they went into the final game of the season on Saturday needing a win to stay up.  Mike Miles was at Adams Park.

London Wasps 10 Newcastle Falcons 14 – Saturday 5th May 2012 – Adams Park

It was a tough choice…Stay at home to watch Chelsea and Liverpool play out the Cup Final on the box…. or travel to High Wycombe to see Wasps against Newcastle in a Premiership decider. So I was probably one of the few punters who were happy to see the Wembley game kick off at 5.15. All the final round of Premiership matches were scheduled to kick off at 2.00, so it was an easy choice to make.

The former Wasps great Lawrence Dallaglio, who had led Wasps to some of their greatest triumphs until he retired in 2008, described it as “the most important game in the club’s history.” It was hard to disagree with him. The cost of failure could be measured not simply in financial terms-although that could run onto millions of pounds- but the effect on the lives and careers of many associated with these two historic clubs. If Wasps were to be relegated it could mark the start of an inexorable decline. For Newcastle it would mean the end of 16 years in the Premiership-they were the first Premiership champions-and possibly the loss of an important outpost for professional rugby in the north-east.

Adams Park is not the most accessible of grounds. You can park next door to the stadium, but there is only one access road to the industrial estate where Adams Park lies and post-games cars are held up to allow pedestrians priority. I would recommend leaving the car at the Cressex Park and Ride facility near Junction 4 of the M40 and catching the free bus which drops you off about 100 yards from the stadium. Even in the post-game rush this worked pretty well. There is a large Asda near the car park so you can do your shopping while the traffic eases.

And nothing succeeds like the fear of failure. Wasps attracted their first capacity crowd-10,516 worried souls- for many a season for this showdown. Neither side made a compelling case that they were worthy of Premiership status.

The scenario was simple…Wasps needed one point to avoid possible relegation. Newcastle needed a bonus-point win by more than seven points, or a win by 24 clear points. The losing bonus point from the last game away to Bath-pilfered when the Bath player Sam Vesty was tackled just before the line by Wasps winger Tom Varndell as he waved to the crowd in premature celebration of a try that never was- was now worth its weight in gold. The improbable never looked likely as the Falcons only took the lead for the first time with four minutes to go.

The final whistle was received with relief rather than jubilation. By finishing one point above Newcastle, Wasps ensured their Premiership future, and that a projected takeover of the club will go ahead. Newcastle now have to hope Bristol fail to win the championship, as theirs is the only ground deemed suitable for the Premiership. As Falcons Director of Rugby Gary Gold put it: “We won the battle, but lost the war. “Maybe not…..And I was home in time to see Ramires put Chelsea ahead against Liverpool.