Organisers hope to improve atmosphere at matches but could end up destroying one of game’s greatest traditions
Rugby World Cup 2015 organisers are mulling over the idea of segregating fans at the tournament next year. No more mix’n’mingle, no more rubbing shoulders with the opposition, no more jibes and taunts and banter.
In football it has long been the norm to keep the hordes apart. Never the twain shall meet, unless it is in the High Court to face charges of mass mayhem. Only last week Ian Ritchie, the Rugby Football Union chief executive, was extolling the virtues of life on the Six Nations beat at Twickenham, where the English and Irish and Welsh sit side by side, with nary a copper in sight and no arrests on the charge sheet in years.
This past weekend there have been uplifting scenes of harmony at Twickenham and Marseille. There may not have been the biggest turnout for the Saracens v Clermont Auvergne Heineken Cup semi-final but there was colour and noise and empathy, Saracens’ fans exulting as their men in black turned in one of the greatest performances from an English side in decades. They even had a bit of emotional energy left over to commiserate with their fellow travellers from the Auvergne for they themselves had been in that dark place all too recently. The double semi-final disappointment of last season blighted Saracens’ season.
The following day in France’s Mediterranean melting-pot port, it was impossible to distinguish between the rival sets of fans as they both sported red. Yet all along the Marseille boulevards that ring the Stade Vélodrome, there was a sense of fiesta as the pre-match rituals of food, drink and song were indulged. It was the same inside the soaring revamped stadium, in the process of being rebuilt to host the Euro 2016 football championship, and what a magnificent addition to the roster of grounds it will be, where the flags billowed in the afternoon breeze and the evocative partisan chants rang out. Pilou-Pilou from one lot, The Fields of Athenry from the other. Any sign of trouble? Not a flicker.
It is part of rugby’s landscape that the brutality is reserved for the field of play. And even there, when the final whistle sounds, the ferocity fades instantly. Then begins what the French term, la troisième mi-temps, ‘the third half’, as the winding-down process of, yes, more food, drink and song takes place.
So why, then, is there even the prospect of this long-standing ritual of civilised tribalism being changed? For the best of motives, although the reasoning will trigger debate.
Organisers are considering every possibility in their quest to make RWC 2015 one long festival of fun. They have pored over the finest of details to work out what contributes to a special atmosphere within stadiums. Of course they recognise that the action itself is the single most important contributory factor. If the sport is good, the prevailing mood will take care of itself. Think Ireland v New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium last November.
Or England-Ireland at Twickenham. Or the topsy-turvy Northampton v Leinster Heineken Cup final of 2011? You get the picture.
The integrity of the sport itself is paramount. There is no need to contrive the backdrop at such occasions. In fact, there is nothing worse than the meddling buffoonery that sometimes takes place at grounds as some chump on a microphone attempts to rev up the crowd with mindless blaring.
We took Saracens to task last season for the playing of some cretinous tune during the play itself to try to silence the Munster contingent on the terraces.
What RWC 2015 is looking into is the grouping of fans so that they can make maximum noise in one homogenous block. They are concerned that various travel groups, or expats living here and legitimately purchasing tickets through their local clubs to support the Wallabies or the Springboks or whoever, will be scattered throughout the stadiums, isolated voices. They reason it might make more sense to congregate them all together to enhance noise levels. It would create a sense of solidarity, spark off rival chanting from the other grouped-together mob, and so the volume would be cranked up.
It is a worthy notion. But far better to let natural forces work their magic. Let them sort it out themselves. The best parties are those when new acquaintances are made, when unexpected conversations are sparked by chance encounter. Above all, though, rugby has something special in its current way of doing things. That 80,000 can come together, with passions running high, and not need to be herded into designated sections by an army of security goons in high-vis jackets, is something of which the sport can rightly be proud.
RWC 2015 is set to be a jamboree. Half a million tickets go on sale through clubs in May. The public sale starts in September. The idea of possible segregation is well intentioned. But it is wrong.
Original story on The Telegraph