As the absence of crowds is felt throughout sport, Rugby World columnist Stephen Jones hails the game’s lifeblood – supporters
A tribute to rugby fans
Fans. Rugby fans. What would we do without them? Sadly, we are now finding out. Rugby is being played in ghost grounds, with just a mere splattering of coaches and coaching back-up, a few television technicians and a row or two of journalists. It is uncannily quiet and profoundly unsatisfying, even though some of the rugby being played has been excellent.
But without the colourful cavalcade in their hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands, in the stadiums and towns and cities where the matches take place (or in their tens or hundreds in the amateur game), it seems that half the spectacle and almost all the sense of occasion has stayed at home along with them.
Where have we missed them most? Everywhere. Rewind a few months to the end of last season. Imagine the noise that would have greeted Leinster sealing the Guinness Pro14 against Ulster. Exeter’s win over Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final deserved a crowd as big as the Maracana, let alone the 14,000 they can pack in at Sandy Park.
The Scarlets have their own memories. Two seasons ago when they played La Rochelle at home, the stadium was absolutely bouncing, with the stirring Yma O Hyd ringing all around West Wales. A stark contrast to the bleak silence of their first home game of this Pro14 season against Munster.
Fans. At Twickenham on match day, journalists tend to arrive very early. I try to be in the media box four hours before kick-off, and not just because Andrew, the media box steward, serves lunch before the game. It is just that there is a fair amount to do and to contemplate.
As kick-off approaches, we will have heard the anthems being rehearsed – God Defend New Zealand, or to be accurate God Defend New Zee-hee-land, does get you just a little upon fifth repetition. We will also hear God Save the Queen at least five times as well, and loud roaring as the men or women on the microphones warm up their tonsils.
However, nothing of any note happens whatsoever, there is no sense of occasion and no adrenalin, until the fans arrive. Admittedly, way too many of you leave it way too near the kick-off to come in. You also crash and totter back and forth refilling your glasses during the game.
But nothing you could say in pre-match analysis, either written or on broadcast media, nothing you could lay on before a game, could possibly create the tension and the expectancy like all you lot arriving in your hordes.
“Major stadiums are called the cathedrals of the game. But what are cathedrals without congregations? Just hollow and soulless old buildings”
It is the same for every ground, at any level, anywhere in rugby. The great journalist Ian Wooldridge called the major stadiums “cathedrals of the game” and he was dead right. But what are cathedrals without congregations? Just hollow and soulless old buildings.
And that is the savage drawback of rugby right now. We must admire those rugby bodies and organisers and medical staff and security men and planners and everyone involved in getting rugby on in the Gallagher Premiership and the Pro14 and the Autumn Nations Cup and now the 2021 Six Nations.
If we did not have television money at present then we would not have much money at all, and how the treasurers must wince in agony to see 80,000 empty seats at Twickenham or 15,000 at the Rec or 25,000 at Thomond Park or to see Parc y Scarlets completed denuded. There is no one to blame bar the beastly virus. But no fans, no show.
Fans are lovable for their sheer good nature and patience. The game long ago stopped prioritising them. Ticket prices have gone through the roof, and after Covid-19 they will be in the stratosphere, no doubt. They shunt kick-off times for the benefit of television, probably to hours when you might be having some family time or be otherwise engaged.
They have stuck with the horror of Sunday Internationals where the numbers of travelling fans have been brutally cropped and the atmosphere diminished, and they have even staged those horrible Friday evening kick-offs, in cities that are already at a standstill with Friday evening traffic.
Fans? Buy your tickets and be quiet. But still, those supporters are undaunted.
Frankly, I love you all. I love what you bring, the comments, the occasional barbs. The lack of friction with opponents. If I have one objection it lies in the rather pompous shushing when someone is having a kick at goal, a practice that is most prevalent amongst crowds who then resort to lack of sportsmanship and utter mercilessness. But thankfully, they are incredibly few and far between.
Fans. I love you when we are having a few quiet evenings in our hotel Down Under on a British & Irish Lions tour, then the next night you come down and 10,000 people dressed in red are queueing for the bar, delaying the lifts, but spending hard-earned cash and deserving to lap up every millisecond.
You even have to love the fans in Hong Kong. You realise after a couple of visits to the sevens that none of the hysterical roars that come from the huge bank of fancy-dressed loonies down the end, are related to the action on the field – but they have paid their money, they add to the colour, they can do whatever they like.
Probably, I fell in love with fans when I was one myself. At school, Mr Harries – our sports master – would be standing in the corridor with a handful of blue tickets given to him by Newport RFC. These were the complimentary tickets through which we became devoted followers of the Black-and-Ambers, and in turn that is one of the reasons why I knew in my heart that regional rugby in Wales would never work, and it has not.
Some seasons, we hardly missed a home game, went on the supporters’ bus to a good few away games. We stood in the Shed at Gloucester as teenagers, wearing our Newport scarves, taking all the stick going but never feeling in the least anxious. And now even the Shed has been empty, and what use is an empty Shed?
My first job in journalism was on this magazine as a tyro. I always used to go to Cardiff Arms Park and stand on the North terrace and when I became a journalist, I declared to my friends that I would never leave them, I would always stand with them on the terrace.
I did it once, then tried – as an experiment – my media box ticket. Blimey. It was a great view, none of the jostling, and a free lunch. I have to admit that I turned my back on the terraces, never to return. Two-faced, maybe. But metaphorically at least, I was still down there with them. And I still am. Rugby without fans is a film without dialogue, or without scenery.
Fans. You have all been grievously missed, and the day you all come charging back in (safely), will be the day when rugby becomes itself again.
Armchairs are all very well. Being there is everything.
This article originally appeared in the December 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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