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Jackson column: The numbers don’t lie, fans snub the regions in PRO14

A startling fact can be unearthed from the mound of attendance figures at the Millennium Stadium last month – that more than 36,000 fans support Wales at the expense of their regional teams.

At a time when all four are suffering from the PRO14’s invisibility caused by their retreat behind a satellite television paywall, the Autumn series provided stark evidence of the extent to which they are being ignored by the legions who follow Wales and, it would seem, nobody else.

The latest average crowd figures for the Blues, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets put together amounts to 26,446 – more than 5,000 down on last season. Wales in Cardiff last month averaged 63,015 despite falling a long way short of a sell-out 74,500.

Even allowing for the improbability that the number included every single regular attender of the PRO14, it leaves 36,569 unaccounted for. It does not need Mr A Einstein to deduce that the next game on their radar will be Wales-England in February and none of the regional matches in between.

Of course people have always watched international rugby in larger numbers than at other levels but the gap in Wales appears to be widening. Ireland pack the limited Aviva Stadium to its 51,700 capacity which is roughly the equivalent to the average crowds for their four provincial teams: Leinster 22,636, Ulster 12,590, Munster 11,109, Connacht 5,698.

Photo: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Aggregate crowds at the last round of the six-match Aviva Premiership, on the wettest weekend of the season, climbed to almost 80,000, close enough to England’s average at Twickenham as to make no difference.

Scotland’s booming box-office appeal in repeatedly filling Murrayfield even for matches against non-Tier One opponents is due reward for their brand of customer-friendly rugby. Head coach Gregor Townsend started it at Glasgow and has now taken it to a grander stage.

The Warriors have been playing to full-houses of 7,351 at Scotstoun for so long that anything less would raise an eyebrow or two. Traditionally, the Scottish game has never had a club following anything like their counterparts in Wales.

Neath’s struggle merely to exist is an example of how the land-scape has changed and how it will go on changing. The growth of Judgement Day, the annual double- header of the four Welsh regions, shows the support can be generated but then that’s only one Saturday out of a season containing almost 40.

The PRO14 must be the only competition where crowds go from one extreme to the other, from more than 50,000 for Leinster-Munster to barely a thousand, for Southern Kings against Leinster in Port Elizabeth.

The South Africans must be the loneliest team in the game. Their last four matches at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium have barely averaged 2,000. The Cheetahs have not fared much better in Bloemfontein where fewer than 10,000 have watched the three successive home matches against Munster, Treviso and Connacht.

There is no solace to be found in that for the Welsh regions. As if making ends meet is not tough enough, they are now having to compete against the national team in a shrinking market.

As the figures show, there is only one winner.

PETER JACKSON

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