By Peter Jackson
The pioneering American showman, Phineas T Barnum, never lost sight of a basic truth of the entertainment business: “Every crowd has a silver lining.’’
In a PRO14 context last season, the crowds generated more of a silvery lining on Boxing Day than at any other time throughout the regular campaign with a best-of-the-winter at Limerick (26,267 for Munster-Leinster), at Llanelli (14,059 for Scarlets-Ospreys) and at Newport (8,722 for Dragons-Blues).
Year in, year out there have never been more fans willing to part with their silver than at the time of peace and goodwill to all men. Traditionally, there is no rugby business like Boxing Day business which makes the coming season’s wipe-out all the more baffling.
This Boxing Day the PRO14 will be closed for business, as it will on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. A multitude of fans from the west of Ireland to the east of Wales expecting to see their teams add to the festive fun will have no professional rugby to watch.
The Gallagher Premiership and the French Top 14 having already decided to dispense with matches on public holidays during the coming season, the PRO14 had a chance to be different. When they met to thrash out the complex matter of who played when and on what television channel, a plaintive plea for Boxing Day was made to sound like a cry in the wilderness.
Far from spending time trying to accommodate matches on Wednesday December 26, the tournament organisers were adamant. It was not, according to my source, even a matter for debate, as if the Christmas fixtures had been set in stone.
All matches over the Yuletide period would be played on Saturdays – December 22, December 29, January 5. Switching any fixture to more fan-friendly dates may not have suited Premier Sports’ scheduling and having paid the piper they would expect to call the tune, although how much the Irish-based pay-per-view channel paid for the exclusive live television rights has not been disclosed.
That, naturally enough, was not the reason given for the refusal to consider the customers and accommodate their wishes. Rugby has never rushed to put the fans first, mainly because of the old amateur ethos about it being ‘a players’ game’, the implication being that if the paying customer didn’t like what he saw, he could sod off and watch something else because it really wasn’t any of his business.
The reason the PRO14 gave for their refusal to budge fitted into that concept: player welfare. The reports from my flies on the wall in the negotiating room made it clear that Boxing Day was not even a topic for discussion.
Had the most colourful of all Welsh scribes, the late Dave Phillips, still been around, he would have written about the die being cast and ‘this Dai being downcast’.
Surprisingly, none of the four Welsh regions has kicked up even the faintest trace of a fuss at losing their most lucrative festive dates. Cardiff Blues, for example, are in danger of being hit at the gate by a double whammy as a consequence.
Instead of playing the Dragons on Boxing Day as per usual, they will play their nearest rivals at the Arms Park on the Saturday before Christmas, never the best time to be at home what with family pressures to do last-minute festive shopping.
Cardiff City have found a fortuitous antidote on their return to the Premier League in a fixture list that gives them Manchester United at home that very day.
Even in a city of fairly rigid demarcation lines between rugby and soccer, the Blues are likely to feel the draught from a mile or so down the road as the Bluebird flies.
Retaining Boxing Day and pushing the January 5 matches to the Sunday would have meant three matches in twelve days with the promise of bigger crowds all round, manna from heaven for teams losing money hand over fist. Sorry, you can’t do that because of player welfare.
Why not? In what has long become a squad game, the PRO14 could have simply struck a deal with their clubs that no one player would play more than a maximum 160 minutes over those three games.
Player welfare doesn’t stop national Unions squeezing more and more Test matches into the calendar. Nor does player welfare stop Rugby World Cup devising a schedule in Japan next year which requires Uruguay and Georgia to play three matches in ten days.
The South Americans play Fiji on September 25 next year, Georgia four days later and Australia six days after that. Player welfare doesn’t seem to apply to the sole qualifiers from South America and Eastern Europe.
Neither does it seem to apply to Samoa who are scheduled to play their first three matches in eleven days, nor to Fiji who are given 24 hours longer for their first three. Wales, by contrast, have the luxury of a ten-day break after Australia (September 29) and before Fiji (October 9).
Meanwhile, back on the domestic club front, rugby has shut up shop for the three public holidays after Christmas Day, turning its back on thousands of customers while football pack theirs into stadia the length and breadth of the country.
Another favourite saying of Phineas T Barnum springs to mind: “Fortune always favours the brave and never helps the man who does not help himself.’’
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