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Clearer vision and cheaper tickets needed to enhance Premiership allure – The Guardian

There is no shortage of star quality in English club rugby but it needs to be affordable, accessible and run with far more clarity
On the face of it the mission statement should be simple enough: show club rugby union to as many people as possible, live and on television.
Make it affordable, family-friendly and fun. Invite players and coaches to spread the gospel. And, once you have people’s attention, redouble your promotional efforts. Any business sitting idly on its hands is going nowhere.
So why is it that Premiership rugby still ricochets from one crisis to another? No one can entirely legislate for a monarch dying on the eve of a season. Or the financial stress at Worcester. Or Covid-19. But by the time the Bristol v Bath and Sale v Northampton games were belatedly postponed on Friday, tens of thousands of fans were in limbo bemoaning a frustrating lack of organisational clarity. Even before a ball had been kicked it was patently obvious the English game is not as collectively well aligned as it should be.
Sure enough, it emerged the decision was influenced by a couple of clubs not involved in Friday’s scheduled fixtures – who were then happy to play the same weekend. Trying to find common ground between 13 sides with contrasting agendas had, once again, proved impossible. As a consequence the rearranged Bristol game could not be televised as planned, going ahead without a television match official and with a reduced attendance.
One of those things? Only if you believe it was a rare blip in the otherwise serene world of English club rugby governance. And only if you ignore some of the other flashing amber off-field warning signs on the opening weekend. Early days, clearly, and extenuating circumstances clearly existed. That said, of the six Premiership clubs hosting games, four attracted lower crowds than for their opening September home fixture a year ago and a fifth – London Irish – attracted nine additional supporters. The exception, Bristol, were up because Bath brought more fans than Saracens did a year previously.
It is a pity because, as ever, the players gave their all. Ellis Genge might as well have had “box office” printed on his Bristol shirt such was his two-try impact on the rescheduled fixture at Ashton Gate. Ben Spencer’s dagger-smart score for Bath, Louis Rees-Zammit’s spectacular long-range sprint for Gloucester, Quins’ length-of-the-field stunner in Newcastle and Henry Arundell’s latest try-scoring flourish for London Irish were equally striking.
There is a separate argument to be had as to whether English club rugby is better or worse preparation for the international arena these days but the feeling persists that club rugby should be generating a bigger following. Or, rather, that something fundamental is holding back people who would otherwise love it. And it is that “something” that urgently needs solving if the league is to start next season in a healthier, more unified state.
It is certainly time to start discussing ticket prices. If you fancy sitting in the main grandstand to watch Exeter v Harlequins this month, for example, seats are available for £80. On the other side of the ground, in the upper tier of the new stand, it is £65. Behind the posts, an adult ticket is now somewhere between £40 and £56.
With a cost of living crisis looming, these are punchy prices. But as the club’s chairman, Tony Rowe, likes to say: “All my life I’ve never wanted to be the cheapest. I don’t like discount. I always think you should give value for money.”
It is a similar scenario at Harlequins where an adult seat behind the posts for Saturday’s game with Saracens is £50. Too much? Not if the product is a guaranteed dazzler, maybe. But, hand on heart, how many people watched the first 40 minutes of the kick-heavy Exeter v Leicester game and felt their spirits soaring. For all the vital tactical importance of kicking and territorial gains, protracted “kick tennis” over the heads of two sets of cricked-necked forwards on the halfway line is not going to woo many floating voters.
Only if rugby union has a commercial death wish can it simply shrug and carry on regardless. Or do nothing about the massed ranks of substitutes. By all means have eight available but why not allow teams to use only five? That way there might be more space available for diminutive backs to exploit and less of the monotonous heavy-truck traffic that increasingly passes for midfield invention.
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Maybe it would also be a step forward flow-wise if the television match official was put back in his box permanently? Bristol’s Pat Lam reckoned it led to more niggle and off-the-ball stuff but there is an easy way around that. Collate a file of potential incidents, tie it up with a nice red ribbon and deliver the bundle to the post-match citing officer. Cases would be dealt with retrospectively, rather than everyone drumming their fingers in the cold, leaving the on-field referee to deal with clear and obvious foul play in real time as he sees fit.
The TMO would also then be free to adjudicate on try-scoring line calls alone. Simple. And on the subject of easy wins, how long before someone grasps the tiresome nettle of “second” jerseys? Wasps made a big thing about returning to hooped black-and-gold jerseys that reflected the club’s heritage. So what did they run out wearing at Gloucester on Sunday? A blue/jade number with barely any sense of identity attached to it.
There is an argument that wearing a different coloured away shirt, simply because football does so, diminishes a club rugby brand rather than enhances it.
But enough already. It is also important to applaud good practice and the season is still young. Visiting Kingsholm, say, remains a pleasure the same is true of numerous other grounds. The players, too, remain as willing as ever. A few more bums on seats and some fresh clips of Genge and Rees-Zammit in full cry and all may not yet be lost.
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