Rugby World Cup has been brilliant – but not if you attend games

Fans of England celebrate during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between England and Argentina at Stade Velodrome on September 09, 2023 in Marseille, France
The atmosphere at games has been excelletn but there have been issues under the surface - Getty Images/Michael Steele

Blending the righteous indignation of Emile Zola with the forensic journalism of Bob Woodward, the reporter from SportBusiness France was about to deliver the bombshell that would shake the very foundations of the Rugby World Cup.

“You promised, did you not, nine different, locally sourced sandwiches at all World Cup venues?” the journalist intoned at a press conference with the tournament organisers on Wednesday. “Why then was I only able to source a mere jambon fromage at my last match?”

The dark conspiracy had been blown wide open. Or perhaps not. The different flavour sandwiches, he was told, would have been available at different kiosks throughout the stadium.

Sandwichgate will have to wait for another day, but his question does at least hint at the disconnect between what the organisers have claimed is the most successful World Cup ever attracting 1 million supporters and record television viewing figures versus the overwhelming anecdotal evidence which suggests plenty of match-going supporters are finding this the most miserable tournament to date.

Rugby supporters, in general, are not complicated creatures. They want to watch the game, they want to get home from the game and they want cold beer, although not necessarily in that order.

On that basis, France 2023 is failing. After the near disaster of the opening England match against Argentina in Marseille when thousands of supporters were trapped in a dangerous crush and hundreds missed kick-off, there have been further reports of Wales and Ireland fans not making kick-off despite arriving in plenty of time, even if Jacques Rivoal, the chairman of France 2023 organising committee, claims this does not apply to “99.9 per cent” of supporters.

Getting home has been even more challenging, especially after 9pm kick-offs from out-of-town stadiums like Lyon and Nice which are served by one temperamental tram line. Hundreds of supporters were left stranded around the Parc Olympique Lyonnais after Wales’ 40-6 victory over Australia on Sunday night, which is eight miles from the centre of town.

Fans squeeze to get into the subway train towards the Stade de Marseille before the Rugby World Cup Pool B match between South Africa and Scotland in Marseille, France, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023
Long queues and busy trains have been commonplace after games - AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

“Having been to many stadium games this was an absolute s---show,” one supporter who contacted Telegraph Sport wrote. “They were stopping everyone from leaving, it was honestly the worst crowd control I’ve ever seen.” Even a less high profile game such as Uruguay v Namibia in Lyon have attracted reports of overcrowded trams and hapless stewarding.

“There are a number of fans who have had some challenging experiences, but let’s put that into context,” Alan Gilpin, the World Rugby chief executive, said. “There are one million fans who have already gone through the turnstiles at this Rugby World Cup. Unfortunately at any big event, no matter how much planning, testing and modelling that you do, it’s hard to model every fan’s behaviour.

“What we are already seeing at this World Cup is fans arriving at times when we didn’t think they would. Some pleasingly early, that creates challenges, some late, which creates other challenges.”

And then there is the issue of beer. A record 120,000 cups of beer were served at the Stade de France for Ireland’s defeat of South Africa on Saturday when organisers privately admit that four times that number could easily have been sold.

For nearly every match, there have been accounts of beer selling out or the queues being so long that fans simply gave up. Insiders say that French stadia do not have the beer infrastructure with pumps, kegs and refrigeration to cope with the demand, almost as if rugby fans’ penchant for more than one pint has come as a sudden surprise.

This is not to say that no one has had a good time at the World Cup. You only have to be around a city centre in the days before a matchday to witness a riot of colour and camaraderie. As the reclamation of a 1994 Zombies song demonstrates, rugby supporters can easily make their own fun.

“We don’t want any fans having a challenging experience so we will keep working to make sure we get those parts right,” Gilpin said. “I’d like to think now we are seeing that’s a small minority in a big tournament.

“Fan safety is the most important thing. Whilst there have been reports that security has maybe been heavier than some fans expected in certain venues and cities, it needs to be that way to make sure we are providing the safest possible environment for fans.”

Yet for all the statistics that the tournament organisers can regurgitate, the numbers cannot capture how officious and mean spirited this World Cup has felt to supporters. The overbearing police presence, the confiscating of water bottles and the extortionate prices for food and drink; these are what Rivoal dismissively referred to as “micro issues” but they quickly accumulate when supporters have paid thousands to follow their country. When you factor in the rush to block any unsanctioned content or clips on social media and the manhandling of journalists in mixed zones, it all adds up to a World Cup that feels a lot more corporate than it does caring.