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2024 Six Nations in Retrospect – Part One

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Attendances

Let’s take that easy topic first. But even it is riddled with tricky questions.

Do gates matter? – Notice how clubs and nations only publish attendances when they reflect well on them.

Bill Sweeney, the RFU’s COE, has given a hopeful response: “Long term we believe it (the Red Roses’ programme) is going to more than break even.” But later he adds that ticket prices for Twickenham (women’s) games are too low!

That begs a heap of questions. Is it true that a relatively cheap entrance fee lowers the importance of a match? – the higher the price, the more people want to be there?

Then, would 58,000 have turned up to the France match last year, and 48,000 to see Ireland this year if seat prices had risen? For many people the cost of getting to and from a stadium with a family in tow is close to prohibitive. But Sweeney is used to big money. He received a £16k boost as three Premiership sides went bust.

An increase would at least remove a favourite criticism of the women’s game, that it rests on the shoulders of the men’s.

Why do the gates keep increasing?

Fact: every nation has announced new attendance records, of one sort or another.

France has proved that TV is the initial draw. Coverage by france.tv was established long before other TV companies were willing to hedge their bets on transmitting women’s internationals. The gates les Bleues attracted increased in line with the viewing figures.

The BBC followed suit much later, the bosses soon realising they might be on to a winner. The Red Roses’ attendances passed the magic 10,000 mark in 2019 at Sandy Park, Exeter, not for the plum France match, but for Italy. The latest figure, around 1.9m viewers at peak time for the France game bodes well.

This year Wales passed that Exeter total too, for their vital game against Italy (10,592). They won it.

Location, location

That brings us directly to the follow-up decision: where best to host matches? Big stage mostly empty or smaller stage well filled?

In Wales’ case the WRU went deliberately for the bold response, the Principality Stadium, which many pundits consider the greatest rugby amphitheatre of all. The fear must have been that a still winless Welsh team would not pull the punters in. They did, to the extent of breaking the national record for a standalone game.

Of the six nations involved, England, Wales and Scotland have already used their national stadiums for 6N matches, though we must admit that Murrayfield crept in only as an emergency replacement for Scotstoun, after the devastation caused by Storm Ciara. And even then Murrayfield was to suffer a snowstorm.

But it’s the same problem with every maxi-sized stadium. However many spectators the publicists manage to draw in, there are bound to be large areas of emptiness. What effect does that have on the various groups involved, players, crowd, viewers, TV companies, sponsors, and so on?

France’s problem is unique. The FFR does not own the Stade de France, which is run by a company. And the FFR reckons they are charged a king’s ransom every time they ask to play their mens’ internationals there. Efforts to find another site, plus the money to pay for such an extravagance, have so far failed.

Italy present a different case again. As the newest addition to the group of six, the FIR was nervous of booking the Stadio Olympico for its men’s home games.

It was a different story for the Azzurre. After moving around, the FIR made the decision to select one ground, the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Parma, and call it home. Gates in Italy have proved the most sluggish of the six.

Ground authorities are careful these days to ensure that they fill the seats directly opposite the main cameras. Till recently that was not the case; the viewer might hear plenty of enthusiastic support, but remain unable to see it – until a subsidiary camera, probably a shoulder-cam, showed a brief reverse view.

The Top Tier Syndrome

A big turning point came with the RFU’s decision to hold the big France match at Twickenham last year. It would be a standalone event; no other attraction to pull the punters in. In the build-up it began to look as if the publicists could afford to take time off. The momentum went on building; successive days would see a new vast total of tickets sold. In the end it amounted to 58,498, by far the largest crowd ever to attend a women’s international.

Next the RFU took the bold step of offering the Red Roses a second visit to HQ this year. As it happened, it was England’s turn to host only two matches. The decision was made to hold the Wales game as close to the Welsh border as possible. That meant Ashton Gate, Bristol, which brought another (restricted) record of 19,705: the highest attendance away from Twickenham. Just short of the magic 20k figure.

Could a game against Ireland reach anywhere near that 2023 figure? Well, 48,778 turned up, another monstrously large figure compared with elsewhere. And the experience must be heartening for both sides.

But in a stadium as vast as Twickenham (82,000) the top of the three tiers has yet to be used by spectators. The cameras had plenty of audience reaction, but a wider lens revealed the targets still to be reached. Can women’s rugby look forward to attracting so many people that even HQ and the Principality can be filled to the brim? It’s a tough call, but given the extraordinary increase in ticket sales over the past six years, anything seems possible.

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