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Jackson column: Boxing Day derby ties would bring fans back to Welsh PRO14 clubs

Wales paved the way for big attendances at club matches, starting with 48,000 for Cardiff-Newport at the Arms Park in 1950. They had crowds when none of the other home countries really had any.

It stayed like until the end of the Seventies, a decade that started with the new Welsh Cup final rapidly establishing itself as a fitting finale to the domestic season. In contrast the RFU version at Twickenham struggled to justify the venue, never more so than when fewer than 8,000 turned up to see Gosforth beat Rosslyn Park in the 1976 final.

Compared to gates elsewhere in the English game, that was quite a gathering. There was always plenty of room when Leicester played at Welford Road in the Seventies when, according to Tigers’ historian Stuart Farmer, ‘the average paid attendance was often less than a thousand’.

It wasn’t until the last season of the last century, 1998-9, that Leicester began to average five figures. They began doubling that figure eleven years later and last season reclaimed their status as Europe’s best-supported club, a title that had been usurped by Bordeaux.

Despite their slump on the world stage after the supercharged 1970’s, the Welsh game still drew a crowd, whether it was a wet Wednesday night at Pontypool Park against Gloucester or a Swansea-Llanelli derby at St Helens.

Attendances then, even the official ones, were far from an exact science. Those of us who lived through those times remember rolling our eyes in disbelief when some clubs would deliberately reduce the size of the crowd for public consumption, no doubt driven by crafty club treasurers with the taxman in mind.

Attendances now tell a very different story, especially the batch for the weekends immediately before and after Christmas. From a Welsh perspective, they tell a worrying story which ought to be prompting some serious questions at the highest levels.

Highest club attendances over Christmas period:

82,000 Harlequins v Wasps, Twickenham
32,721 Toulouse v Toulon, Le Stadium
31,626 Wasps v Bath, Ricoh Arena
26,267 Munster v Leinster, Thomond Park
26,242 Bordeaux v Racing, Chaban-Delmas
21,597 Leicester v Harlequins, Welford Road
21,190 Edinburgh v Glasgow, Murrayfield
18,761 Clermont v Toulouse, Stade Michelin
18,429 Bristol v Newcastle, Ashton Gate

Best in Wales:

13,251 Ospreys v Scarlets, Liberty Stadium
10,622 Scarlets v Ospreys, Parc y Scarlets

8,146 Blues v Dragons, Cardiff Arms Park

Every country had at least one big crowd over the holiday period – except Wales. They managed nothing higher than 13,271 for the Ospreys-Scarlets derby in Swansea, a fixture which when played on Boxing Day two years ago drew almost 20,000.

Even the Scots generated more interest at the box-office. Edinburgh-Glasgow topped 20,000, Munster- Leinster packed Thomond Park to the rafters and Wasps topped 30,000 at Coventry against Bath.

And then there was the small matter of Harlequins filling Twickenham as they have been doing every year since plucking up the courage during Mark Evans’ time as chief executive that if Stade Francais could do it in Paris, Quins could at least try in London.

Packed out: Twickenham was sold out for Big Game 11, where Harlequins played Wasps in the Premiership. Photo: Steve Bardens/Getty Images for Harlequins

They filled Twickenham to the brim: 82,000. No Welsh region has been able to put out the ‘house-full’ signs since the Scarlets did so for their Champions’ Cup quarter-final win against La Rochelle last March.

Cardiff Blues came closest this season for last month’s European tie against Saracens. Even then, at 12,018, it still fell short of the Arms Park’s official capacity of 13,000.

Nobody can accuse the WRU or the regions’ umbrella organisation, Pro Rugby Wales, of not doing something about. The Judgement Day double-header, featuring all four regions, is on course to top 60,000 for the fourth year in a row.

The timing, April 27, comes at the fag-end of the domestic season but better late than never. “Tickets are flying for Judgement Day again this season,’’ a Union spokesman says. “It’s become a must-see attraction in the Welsh rugby calendar and a celebration of the regional game.’’

The prospect of Welsh fur flying in all directions would have made ideal fare for Boxing Day with a large public waiting to be entertained. Instead the PRO14 responded by putting the shutters up, trotting out the most convenient of all excuses for their inactivity: player welfare.

For one particular club, television was an issue long before it got round to running the game. This comes from Cardiff RFC’s official review of the 1960-61 season:

“The impact of television was now a serious concern for the gate-taking clubs, Welsh and English, which had begun to be seriously affected by very poor gates when rugby matches were televised on the same day.

“The subject was seriously debated at the AGM of the WRU, delegates of senior clubs reporting that gates of only £25 or even less were taken when there was a clash with a televised match.’’

Many reasons have been touted for the decline in box-office appeal of the Welsh clubs but the biggest one concerned their failure to grab the lifeline offered by the RFU with six places in the English Premiership.

Given the yearning for a revival of the traditional cross-border fixtures, or some of them at least, that would have been a far better fit for the Welsh game than the PRO14.

Regrettably, that particular boat set sail a long time ago.


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