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Jackson column: Welsh regions need British & Irish League to attract fans

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Andy Powell

Ten years have come and gone since the last major Anglo-Welsh club event, a one-sided affair at Twickenham where Cardiff Blues rattled up 50 against Gloucester.

An occasion that transformed Leigh Halfpenny from a 20-year-old novice into a Lion within a matter of weeks drew a crowd of 54,899. In other words, almost as many as watched the Blues last season at the Arms Park over nine home matches in the PRO14.

Little wonder, then, that a British & Irish League cannot come quickly enough for the capital region. The same goes for the other three Welsh regions in their long wait for greener pastures.

The Ospreys found them at Twickenham before the Blues, appearing in the two previous Anglo-Welsh finals against Leicester before an aggregate crowd of almost 110,000. The Tigers won the first in 2007 and lost the second 12 months later when the avengers from Ospreylia evened up the score in front of more than 65,000.

There are two reasons why such occasions have become a fading memory: one, the downgrading of the final from HQ after the Blues’ had run riot ten years ago and, two, the fact that no Welsh team has been good enough to go all the way during that time.

That has limited meaningful Anglo-Welsh conflict to the European Champions’ Cup, not the all-too-often meaningless Challenge Cup, the second-string competition designed to give those not good enough for the main event something to do on the six weekends set aside for pool matches.

The old trick of time lending enchantment to the memory means there is always the danger of over-estimating the crowd appeal of the old English-Welsh fixtures of the amateur era, of exaggerating the support. There are unquestionably a few grains of truth in that.

The level of recent public Welsh interest in matches against English clubs can only be gauged by the pool stage of the Champions’ Cup. Over the last eight seasons, only five such contests have drawn a five-figure attendance, as follows:

Biggest European gates between English and Welsh clubs:

13,126 – Ospreys v Leicester, Liberty Stadium, Jan 13, 2013

12,125 – Cardiff Blues v Exeter, Arms Park, Jan 18, 2014

12,018 – Cardiff Blues v Saracens, Arms Park, Dec 15, 2018

11,479 – Scarlets v Bath, Parc y Scarlets, Oct 20, 2017

10,358 – Cardiff Blues v London Irish, Arms Park, Nov 18, 2011

Anti-social kick off times, ranging from Saturday night to Sunday lunchtime, do not help. Even making full allowance for that and other circumstances, some recent figures have hardly been encouraging.

Sarries’ appearance at Swansea two seasons ago fell below 10,000 as did Leicester’s in Llanelli last January when barely 8,000 turned up for what had been rendered a lost cause from a Scarlets’ perspective by four straight defeats.

As for the Challenge Cup, its stark lack of box-office appeal can be measured by the fact that the Blues have endured one sub-5,000 gate, against Sale in December 2017. The Dragons have had to get used to the loneliness of even thinner gatherings at Rodney Parade in the same competition.

A British and Irish League is not only the best antidote to such apathy. It is the only one, provided it comes with relegation as well as play-off places and prize money to ensure that every match means something. And that is more than can be said of Europe’s second-string tournament.

PETER JACKSON / Getty Images

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