x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

All quiet on neutral venues in rugby

Neither Saracens nor Biarritz will find support in Cape Town when they play in the Heineken Cup next January.

Although Saracens have a large South African fan base at their London home, playing a match in Cape Town would most likely prove an unpopular decision.
Although Saracens have a large South African fan base at their London home, playing a match in Cape Town would most likely prove an unpopular decision.

Saracens, the English Premiership champions, are the latest club to test the resourcefulness - as well as the patience - of their supporters by proposing to stage their Heineken Cup match against the French side Biarritz in Cape Town, South Africa, next January.

Playing a competitive fixture at a neutral venue in a foreign country is not a new concept, but neither is it an exact science.

Australia and New Zealand have enjoyed qualified success by staging Bledisloe Cup matches in front of sizeable crowds in Tokyo and Hong Kong in the past.

The Super 15 game, too, has done well in its forays abroad.

When the Canterbury Crusaders, the leading New Zealand franchise, were forced to play away from their home in Christchurch, due to the effects of the earthquake last season they ended up in London for one match.

The fixture against the Natal Sharks at Twickenham was played in an area where there is a large rugby-loving expatriate community. It was regarded as a triumph, and 35,000 tickets were sold.

European club rugby does not enjoy the same following, however - not in Cape Town, anyway.

There is one precedent for an idea like the Saracens one. Last season, London Wasps switched a domestic cup tie against their local rivals, Harlequins, to Abu Dhabi.

The match attracted a fair crowd, but the atmosphere was eerily quiet. There was no home side here, and no one really had a strong feeling for either club, other than via the affiliate sides each club has in the UAE. There was also a fundamental difference between the Wasps match in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and this Saracens idea. The former was a throwaway match in a low-key competition which would only have attracted a small crowd had it been played at home, anyway. The latter is arguably the plum fixture in the most highly regarded competition on the continent.

As many as 3,000 Saracens fans have effectively already bought tickets, via their season tickets. Unlike the Emirates Palace match, which Wasps season-ticket holders were entitled to attend, this is one they will not want to miss.

One of the big attractions of playing in pan-European competition is the chance for travel it provides. However, this should be for away matches. The concept becomes artificial if the most attractive - and expensive - destination on the fixture list is a designated home game played in a country which has no affiliation to either club.

pradley@thenational.ae


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