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Peter Bills: Why are fans being sent to Coventry?

Rugby union just doesn't get it, does it? Frankly, it's just playing at being a professional sport. Countries, clubs, provinces and Unions pay ever increasing amounts of money to players and jokingly call themselves professional.

But when it comes to real professionalism, it seems they haven't got much of an idea.

The last few weeks simply emphasise the point. First we have England's amateurish, cackhanded bungling over the Brian Ashton affair. Then we have the all too familiar saga of the Heineken Cup and its semi-final locations. This is an old chestnut, from the days when they awarded home venue advantage to one of the teams in the semi-finals. How daft! But at least the organisers took heed of our protests - from the 2002/2003 season, most of the subsequent semi-finals have been staged on neutral grounds.

But this year we've seen another nonsensical decision. Tomorrow's Heineken Cup semi-final between Saracens and Munster will be played at that renowned rugby hotspot of a stadium, the Ricoh Arena, Coventry. Now given that Saracens can draw 18,000-20,000 for a top home match, this might have seemed alright if they'd been playing Old Albanians in the semi-final.

Instead, er, it's Munster. Yes, the same Munster who usually take thousands of lifelong supporters whenever they play in this competition. But why isn't Coventry sold out? I'll tell you in a word. Inaccessibility.

Now when I've written about this sort of thing before, I've encountered the wrath of the ERC. I was once walking down a street in Toulouse and, when my mobile rang, had some bloke from ERC shouting down the line at me for something I'd written. They don't like criticism, that's for sure.

What they fail to understand is that such words are written to talk up this great tournament, not talk it down. I'm willing to bet that if Saracens had met Munster at The Emirates, the place would have been packed.

Now maybe Arsenal's ground wasn't available, I don't know. But that isn't the point. The thing is, I'm 100 per cent certain that you could have sold a hell of a lot more tickets for a Heineken Cup semi-final involving Munster if you'd staged it somewhere attractive. Besides, a lot of Irish fans just won't travel because Coventry is such a difficult place to get to.

What if it had been at Twickenham on Sunday? I'll bet you, given good weather, at least 45,000 would have turned up, probably more. Why? Because there is, right now, an insatiable appetite for these big games among the public at large when they're held in grand settings. And I don't just mean the rugby public. The Heineken Cup has caught the imagination of the entire sporting public and people want to experience the unique atmosphere it generates.

I accept it isn't easy finding the right ground. Geographically, the Madejski stadium would have been perfect but it only holds 25,000. Sadly, there aren't hundreds of suitable grounds. And I know what ERC will say. They'll point to the 2006/7 tournament when Northampton met London Wasps in a semi-final at the Ricoh and just 16,186 turned up. But so what? Would you want to traipse all the way to a ground way outside Coventry? It suits no-one really.

But an act that would have captured the imagination of the entire UK and Irish sporting public would have been to hire Wembley for the day, maybe for both semis. Too big? I'm absolutely sure that ERC would have been stunned by the numbers of tickets they'd have sold for a semi-final duo in such a location. And another thing. Why not look at turning the Heineken semi-finals into home and away legs, just like soccer's Champions League? It would broaden the appeal, create more support, more finance.

The point is, ERC must start taking some of these imaginative decisions, not pursuing a steady-as-you-go policy for evermore. They've got a great product, they have to be bold with it.

Max Guazzini, owner of French club Stade Francais, decided a year or two back to test the Parisian rugby market (which everyone thought insignificant) by switching his team's home games against Toulouse and Biarritz to the 80,000 capacity Stade de France. Normally, the crowd would have been a capacity 15,000.

The result? They sold out the Stade de France on each occasion. Isn't it about time ERC started to think equally big about its fantastic, all conquering, wondrous Heineken Cup ?

Belfast Telegraph


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