Wednesday, 26 July 2017

England international rugby tickets at Twickenham – selling the game to the fans

I have been following rugby since around the age of nine, when I started playing at school, confused by the laws, the mud, the rain, the ball and everything else. At the same time, England became quite good and were winning matches under their new captain, Will Carling. A few months later they competed for the Five Nations trophy but unfortunately lost to Scotland in a now-infamous game at Murryfield. No matter – I was captivated and wanted to become a centre like Carling or his more flamboyant partner in midfield, Jeremy Guscott. Sadly, I was quite short and stocky at the time and was subsequently picked as a hooker in the scrum during practice games. I liked running, passing and kicking, but I wasn’t interested in having my face bashed in during rucks and besides which, my throwing into a line out was awful. Fortunately, my positional aspirations coincided with a growth in height and athleticism, so I was moved into the backline. A year later I started playing for Worcester at weekends and England once again had the chance to go for a Grand Slam, which they duly won, before going onto reaching the final of the home World Cup, losing to Australia. Another Gram Slam came the following year and, despite my playing time reducing as I gave more time to cricket than rugby, I had become a dedicated follower and supporter of both the national team and the game in general. 

In 1995 England lost out to New Zealand in the World Cup in a game in which Jonah Lomu single-handedly ran over their backline, scoring a hatful of tries in the process. It marked something of an end of an era as a number of their core players such as Brian Moore, Rob Andrew, Carling himself and Dean Richards all retired within a short space of time and the side’s performance slipped as a rebuilding process took place. Around this period, my interest in sport began to wane as the general fortunes of all the teams / participants I followed plummeted. The England cricket team slipped from mediocrity to obscurity. The England football team did likewise. Tottenham Hotspur sold all their decent players and seem to play every season out for survival. The 1996 Olympic Games featured only one single gold medal for team GB. Motorsport became dominated by a single German. Tennis became dominated by a very dull, hairy American. Domestic football became dominated by Manchester United. International Cricket became dominated by Australia. Snooker became dominated by Stephen Hendry. Over a period of several years I simply lost an inspiration to play or follow sport in general.

At the end of the decade I started a degree course at Plymouth University and in the mix of the usual fresher activity I had a couple of rugby sessions and started playing some football. Around this time the England rugby team became very good again and by the time I graduated they had won a Grand Slam, beaten the Southern Hemisphere teams home and away and were favourites for the 2003 World Cup. I was in Australia for most of the duration of that event and then watched the final on television whilst travelling in New Zealand as Jonny Wilkinson dropped the goal that won the trophy. As a point of digression, the England cricket team also began to improve (finally winning back the Ashes after a long wait in 2005) and at that point I started playing cricket again in the Birmingham League, keen to make the most of competitive sport in the knowledge that my long list of injuries would not allow me to go on forever. This cycle of sporting success triggering my own motivation persisted through to 2012 where upon the fantastic achievements of Team GB in the London Games, followed by the coverage of the Paralympics drove me to start running again and winning back a modicum of fitness, even if the days of me flinging a rugby ball around or hitting sixes had disappeared. Earlier this year, I competed in the Wolf Run and now as I reach the end of my thirties I can still regard myself as being reasonably fit and, more importantly, I am as passionate for sport as ever.

The reason for this brief “rugby focused” retrospect on my sporting journey is the theme of broadening the game’s appeal and spreading the interest in the game, not only to different sections of society but also to the next generations, who will hopefully continue to support the national team with enthusiasm and produce a talent pool of players in the process. Speaking for myself, an interest in sport cannot be manufactured or taught, it has to be ignited organically. By this I don’t mean a pre-game advert, a YouTube video or a well-written introduction by a presenter; I mean a great game, passage of play or piece of individual brilliance. It might include a stocky lad from a small northern town watching Flintoff take wickets and wanting to join his local cricket club. It might be a tall black boy watching Maro Itoje take on the All Blacks with a man of the match performance and decide he wants to be a lock forward. It could be school children packed together in the front row at the Principality Stadium watching Elliot Daly go over in the corner in the dying minutes for an England victory and realizing that this is the sport for them. When I began watching cricket and rugby, almost all the games were on the BBC, with the exception of summer tours which were (I seem to recall) not televised in those days. Then of course in the nineties Sky TV took over, firstly with the cricket winter tours, then the Lions tours, then the autumn internationals, then the summer tours, then the domestic cricket competitions, then the domestic rugby league games, then the summer cricket series, then everything. It was only the Six Nations and rugby world cups left on terrestrial tv. More recently, domestic rugby has moved to BT and there is talk of some cricket coming back to the BBC, whilst the advent of on demand TV apps means that some highlights can at least be seen throughout the season without having to justify £50 or more a month for the privilege.

But there is only so much we can take from sport on the television. To really experience the event, it is still something to actually go to a game, to enter the stadium, to relish the atmosphere, to witness those individuals in the flesh, taking on the best in the world. Cricket is a relatively accessible sport to watch live; for county or franchise matches are either poorly attended (in some cases) or either scheduled with such frequency that tickets are relatively accessible. Moreover, although Test Matches are still popular, there are seldom sold out for all five days, which means that with some diligence tickets can be sourced and a great day out can be had. Rugby too, at a domestic level, is easily accessible as prices are reasonable and most clubs will have spare capacity (the likes of Saracens, Sale and Wasps often have excess capacity within their stadia, whilst even the more traditional town and city clubs such as Leicester and Bath will have some games where tickets can be obtained in advance). Where this all falls down, however, is at international level.

Want to go and watch England play at Twickenham? Good luck. Be my guest – have a go at getting hold of tickets. There are broadly speaking three batches of games that occur at Twickenham over the course of the season; the Autumn Internationals, the Six Nations and perhaps one or two end of season non-cap Barbarian games or pre-tour games. You might, if you are incredibly lucky, be able to source the occasional ticket for the Autumn games on an online ticket distribution network at an inflated price (try over £200 each) and the same for the end of season games, though it must be noted that in the latter, many players are no available due to club commitments, Lions tours or simply selection policy. For the Six Nations, however – the competition that really counts and captures people’s imagination – tickets are like gold dust.

If you visit the official England Rugby website, you will discover that there are three ways in which tickets can be purchased. The first is to pay for a debenture, for which you will receive at least one ticket a year for a decade at a cost of over eight thousand pounds. A bit steep? Sure. So the second option is to become a member of a local club, as they receive an allocation of tickets to international matches. However, this in itself is not straightforward, as not all clubs either count or receive a reasonable allocation. Moreover, as an adult, what if you don’t actually play the game? Would you pay to join a local club simply to secure tickets? This is unlikely to work as an approach because local clubs will probably charge over a hundred pounds for full-season membership and then tend to favour a “team ethos” so it would be frowned upon for someone to literally hand over some money just on the off-chance of securing a set of England tickets. It is likely in that instance that priority would be given to players, or at least those with a degree of involvement in day-to-day activities – which is perfectly fair, though does exclude those people who simply want an avenue to watch and support their national team. The third option is to become a member of the “England Rugby Club” – essentially a paid-for, season-long membership that costs £35 and means that you will receive notifications of tickets for the Autumn Internationals and potentially get placed in a ballot to get tickets for the home Six Nations matches. This is the option I have recently taken in a desperate attempt to secure tickets to an International (and I dare say the only realistic option for most people).

The difficulty of course is that this still represents a reasonable outlay of funds without guaranteeing a ticket and is a bureaucratic barrier that will mean most non-club affiliated fans will probably give up after the initial attempt, perhaps hoping that they can buy a last minute ticket or perhaps get lucky with a friend who “has one going.” It is on such a note that my real irritation begins to kick in because Twickenham have recently announced that they will be reducing the 82,000 capacity in order to make way for more corporate facilities – in other words companies who buy tickets to dish them out for sales teams to use as part of account management and winning new business. The people who end up with these typically get to watch the match in a nice warm executive box without having to queue for beer or to use the toilets, with a perfect view of the game and in all likelihood no genuine interest in the game whatsoever. In the course of my professional career over the past decade I have often heard people talking about having attended a match in such circumstances, only to add with an air of ambivalence that “rugby is a bit boring.” And yet our RFU feels that this is the way to prioritise the ticket allocation within the stadium plan…

Presently, the England rugby team are experiencing the most sustained period of success since winning the World Cup, with back-to-back Six Nations trophies, a Grand Slam and a record winning streak to boast of. Moreover, they had a high representation of Lions players and have also demonstrated a wide pool of youth talent with many new players having enjoyed success on the Argentinean tour. Everything bodes well for a successful run up to the World Cup and even beyond (the main point of failure in 2003 was the inability to plan beyond that point with many retirees). The architect of this success has clearly been Eddie Jones, who has brought back some of the key missing components within the English game, including investing in youth, backing talent and focusing on aggression and ability over what could be regarded as “niceness” (a Stuart Lancaster focal point was “culture”, whatever that might mean). This doggedness is ultimately what brings success in a sport as abrasive as rugby and complements all the things that we love about the game; the intensity, the skills, the fitness, the battle and the attitude of focusing on the conflict on the pitch and the camaraderie off it. 

What then of the impact of this winning spell on the wider appeal of the game? Are we going to see an influx of new fans and players? Will we see the baton being handed down to the next generation? Unfortunately, given the picture I have painted this seems unlikely. I have recently watched all three Lions tests in the pub and, whilst the experience was fantastic, there were not many kids in attendance as a packed-out boozer is not really the sort of environment that young children are welcome in at 8am in the morning. Of course, many would have watched the Six Nations games on BBC or ITV, however, how many new fans would have been able to convince their parents to secure Twickenham tickets for them? The home of rugby is famous for its west car park in which debenture holders bring lavish picnics to feast upon before the matches start, and yet this level of exclusivity is exactly the sort of thing that infuriates so many people. It’s fine for the RFU to offer great packages to those able to afford nearly ten grand to secure high end tickets, but there has to be an understanding that they need to open up at the other end of the scale if the game is to be sustained and opened up to a wider audience. If I think of the mongrel spirit which Eddie Jones has so successfully installed and which has taken this England team to a new level, how might we secure this within the next generation of players if the only ones able to attend games and feel a connection with the international team are those from middle-class backgrounds? When I watch other international teams, I often note the players who offer something different from their English counterparts and in many cases this is less about their position or application but more about their natural credentials. Take Ireland for example: in the main England are probably on balance a slightly better side with a greater array of playing styles at their disposal, but the one thing that Ireland have is a collection of very rugged, physically abrasive “farmer-type” forwards who dominate collisions and win ball simply as a consequence of their physiques and attitude (I referral to players such as Tadhg Furlong and Sean O’Brien). Imagine, therefore, if more kids from some of the rougher areas of London, Bristol, Manchester and Newcastle were able to attend a thrilling Six Nations game at Twickenham and were suitably motivated to take up the sport instead of going down a more unsavory route and ended up being the heroes of tomorrow. In fact, we don’t have to rely on imagination – take the current examples of Ellis Genge at Leicester and more so Kyle Sinckler at Harlequins. Both have come through the ranks of local clubs despite unconventional jounryes compared with most professionals and both have had to overcome huge issues with aggression and behavior in order to hone their discipline and secure professional contracts. In both cases, they are physically dominating, aggressive and committed young men with masses of potential or perhaps several years ago would not have been afforded a chance. The question is, how many more such kids could be out there, were the RFU to prop open the door for the game to widen its appeal and break down the financial barriers to becoming an England rugby fan in the truest sense?

Why not have a couple of games a year at an alternative stadium in Manchester, Birmingham or even Newcastle in order to widen the catchment area? Why not create youth packages in which free tickets would be given out for England A fixtures, with a ballot for those in attendance to follow up with a full International ticket if they get hooked on their first game? Why not reduce the number of corporate boxes and actually increase the capacity? It’s not as if the RFU need the money after all. In recent weeks there has understandably been a lot of focus on the All Blacks and how a country as small as New Zealand (by population at least) can have produced such sustainable success in their national side. One of the many reasons for this is because it is the principle of ambition for every youngster in New Zealand to become an All Black. Everything from the moment they start playing sport at school, all the way through to adulthood is geared towards giving individuals the chance to play for the black jersey. Whilst there are a plethora of factors in this (some of which having nothing to do with stadia and ticket affordability or accessibility), I can’t help but wonder what we would achieve as a rugby playing nation were we to employ such as attitude to the game of rugby. A starting point would be making it easier to get kids to watch their national side. In 1995 in the run up to the 1995 World Cup, Will Carling famously referred to the RFU as “57 old farts,” and was promptly sacked. Although the game very swiftly turned professional following that altercation I suspect his appraisal still stands.

In any case, I’ll keep you posted as to whether I can get hold of some tickets this season…