English rugby's big weekend - records tumble in boom time for Premiership clubs

Mick Cleary
Saracens are expecting a bumper crowd at Wembley when they tackle Harlequins - Getty Images Sport

Matt Banahan, the longest serving player on Bath’s books, first played adult rugby in front of a couple of hundred people. On Saturday, the former Jersey wing will run out to face Leicester at Twickenham in front of an anticipated crowd of 60,000. A couple of hours later, some 10 miles to the north, another sizeable gathering will file through the Wembley gates to savour Saracens’ Aviva Premiership match against Harlequins. 

Sandy Park in Exeter is also expecting a 12,500 capacity turnout for the Chiefs’ match against Bristol. On Sunday at Coventry’s Ric oh Arena, tens of thousands of newfound followers will watch Wasps in action against neighbouring Northampton Saints. 

Click, click, click go the turnstiles. Up, up and up go the attendances, with the record aggregate for a Premiership weekend of fixtures, 156,534, set to be broken. It is boom time on the domestic scene.

Saracens playing Harlequins at Wembley in 2012 Credit: GETTY IMAGES

The club game has come through the fraught, fractious early days of professionalism in the mid-Nineties when Sir John Hall led a gaggle of entrepreneurs into rugby, intent on seeing if the sport could return the riches that the multi-millionaire Newcastle United owner had been canny enough to detect in football. They soon realised that there was no pot at the end of rugby’s rainbow: famous clubs such as Richmond and London Scottish, along with several more, overreached and toppled out, or were turfed out, of the big-time leagues.

How far away those days seem now. Even if the landscape is not all verdant and bountiful, the numbers through the gates this weekend are telling. If nothing else, they indicate potential. Of course there are caveats.

Stage-managed event matches at Twickenham or Wembley are not new even if this is Bath’s first foray into this particular marketplace. Harlequins’ ‘Xmas Big Game’ is an enduring success, with their ninth such operation in 2016 nominated on Thursday in two categories for Sports Events of the Year. 

But all is not quite as it seems. Saracens have routinely drawn crowds of more than 70,000 at Wembley yet struggled to sell their Champions’ Cup quarter-final at home to Northampton – attendance 8,050 – last season en route to a double. The follow-through from the circus-like day out is not a given, as the likes of Stade Français have found in Paris. Their flamboyant owner, Max Guazzini, pioneered the concept at the turn of the Millennium yet only last month the club were in the throes of being consumed by Parisian rivals Racing 92 as they faced the prospect of folding through commercial pressures.

Stade Francais almost merged with Racing 92 Credit: AFP

What is not in doubt is that there is a steady upturn in club fortunes. Several Premiership clubs now return a profit, due in large to the salary cap. There may have been transgressions but its inbuilt constraints have made professionalism viable.

Bath, for one, see great promise in what lies ahead. Saturday's venture is, for the moment, a one-off but with consultation talks mobilised for the redevelopment of the iconic but hemmed-in Recreation Ground in Bath, there is every likelihood of a repeat if the feedback is upbeat. There will be 1,200 children involved on the day in grass-roots activities and with 50 per cent of ticket revenue going toward the charities Help for Heroes and Bath Rugby Foundation, there is a feel-good air surrounding the project.

Who's on the plane?

“That’s how we wanted to see it and there is no doubt that overall attendances in English rugby are on the up, which is a real positive indicator,” said Bath managing director Tarquin McDonald. “A game like this helps us on several fronts. We believe we have a following in the wider community, a legacy of the Jack Rowell era in the Eighties and Nineties when the club was so successful. 

“We hope this will be a special day for all our followers. But there is a genuine rugby purpose to staging the game at Twickenham, too. Bath got to the Premiership final in 2015 and were beaten by half-time. Saracens take that big-stadium experience in their stride. We want to get used to that sort of stage.”

That attitude chimes with that of director of rugby Todd Blackadder, the former All Blacks captain and Crusaders coach who has taken a team to Twickenham before, his Super Rugby side facing the Sharks in an overseas event in the year that the Crusaders played all their scheduled home matches on the road following the Christchurch earthquake in 2011.

Bath in action at Twickenham in 2015 Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“Home is a state of mind, no more than that,” said Blackadder. “It’s where the heart is too, alongside your team-mates. No matter what happens, we won’t use the fact that we are not at the Rec as an excuse, a victim of circumstance. If we are to become the powerhouse we aspire to be, we have to deal with this sort of pressure.”

There was a time when the outcome of the Bath-Leicester fixtures decided the league title. Both clubs have had their fall from grace and are intent on mounting a comeback.

“Leicester is still the game for me, a carry-over from that old rivalry,” said Banahan, who has experienced plenty of turbulence in his 11 years at Bath. “There have been 12 different coaches in that time. It is up to us all now to make it work. 

“I’m a kid from Jersey who didn’t pick up a rugby ball until he was 17 yet four years later I was making my England debut against Argentina at Old Trafford. And now this, huge crowds across London for club games. It just shows the growth that there has been.”

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