Why have sales for Judgement Day IV boomed?

So we can now confirm two record crowds in the Pro12 this week- BT Murrayfield is set to host the biggest Pro12 Final ever on May 28th, whilst the fourth instalment of the Welsh regional double header, Judgement Day will break the previous Guinness Pro12 record attendance, with over 65,000 tickets sold to this years event at the Principality Stadium this weekend. Fans are flocking from all over the world, as far as the UAE, Australia and New Zealand to see Cardiff Blues take on the Ospreys and Newport Gwent Dragons locking horns with Scarlets.

 As many have highlighted, this is a big turn around from the second instalment where just 30,000 people attended. But how have the WRU turned things around and why is this year looking to be such a big success? The first thing has to be the price. It’s a tenner, for two games at the national stadium. For any rugby fan, that’s a pretty tasty deal. It also goes part of the way to explaining why tickets are being bought from so far afield. If you’re in Cardiff this weekend and you like your rugby, at ten pounds, how far wrong can you go for two games?

Another reason is the change in qualification for the Champions Cup and the over haul happening at NGD. Ospreys, Scarlets and Cardiff Blues are all battling it out to make the top six of the league in order to qualify for next year’s Champions Cup. As a further incentive, having never lost at Judgement Day, Ospreys will be keen to keep their record. However, with a winning streak up to four games, Cardiff Blues won’t make it easy for them.

There are also places in the Guinness Pro12 play-offs at place, meaning that every team has something to lose with the results. NGD, despite being out of the running for Champions Cup rugby and a play-off spot, still have a lot to play for. If they lose this weekend they will be onto their worst losing streak in the history of the league (9 games). At a time when they’re searching for new investors too, the pressure will be on to cause an upset and beat the Scarlets who have suffered from a drop in form at the wrong time in the season.

There is, of course an aspect to all of this that is perhaps, less rugby related. As has been highlighted on Twitter, with prices so low this event does of course attract the ‘part-time’ fans who tend to come along, sink too many beers, spill too many beers and spend half of their time trying to squeeze past for another trip to the bathroom. However, with any event of this size, it is inevitable. Any way you look at it, if more fans are coming through the turnstiles and the rugby is good, more of them are likely to support their regional side, which can only be good for Welsh Rugby and the Guinness Pro12 on the whole. We just have to hope that the teams deliver a day of fast, exciting rugby for the fans.

The final factors for me, are word-of-mouth and marketing. I’ve attended Judgement Day two times now and had a great day, experiencing some exciting rugby. The first year we were two. The next we were six. This year we are six- five who have never watched the regions play and myself. I will be flying from Barcelona at 10 O’clock the night before just to make it.

It has been an enjoyable event each time around and it is an event people talk about now and want to go to. Maybe I’m looking into it too much, but being the Guinness Pro12 instead of the Rabodirect Pro12 helps too. Going from the Rabo Bank colours of orange and blue to black and gold just looks so much better and in my opinion, makes the whole league feel more legitimate and serious.

Looking ahead, with Jonathan Davies and Rhys Patchell arriving at Scarlets, Matthew Morgan to Cardiff Blues, potential new management at NGD and Ospreys vying to make the playoffs once more, I hope next year will provide another stellar event. First job though is to ensure that the 65,000 plus in attendance this weekend have a reason to come back.

You can see some highlights for the event, here.

If you haven’t already, you can buy tickets here.

The Scribbler, 28th April, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

Catalan Rugby- Divisió D’Honor Catalana Final- CEU vs FC Barcelona

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Rugby Catalonia promotion for the final

 

I’m now in my fourth month away from rugby. Having watched Gloucester overcome London Irish at a very rainy Kingsholm over the Christmas period, I returned to Spain and barely seen a game of rugby since. There was of course access to the Six Nations, but European Rugby, Premiership and Pro12 rugby is hard to come by. That is why, whilst the rest of you were watching Racing 92 down Leicester Tigers, I was watching the Divisió D’Honor Catalana Final- the final of the top league in Catalonia, contested by two Barcelona teams- CEU and FC Barcelona. Whether it’s a national final or a regional final, I’ll let you argue between yourselves..

The game was staged by the local club of Igualada, Anoia Rugby, who yesterday secured a 3rd place finish in the 3rd division with 7-27 bonus point win over rivals RC Mataró in just their second season. The first thing that struck me about it, was the support that turned out in Estadi Les Comes for the final. For those who don’t know, Igualada is a small city just outside of Barcelona, about 45 minutes in the car, so not exactly a long haul journey for the fans. Entry to the stadium was free, where Anoia Rugby were selling kit and the bar was serving up beers and hot food. A friend and I attended and by our estimation, there were a few hundred people in attendance.

In terms of how good that is for a final here, I don’t know. From reading Rugby Catalonia’s website, there were concerns about attendance; according to Wikipedia, as of 2014, Igualada is a city of just under 40,000 people. In Igualada, Rugby Union is very new, with Anoia Rugby only having been founded in 2013. Despite all of this, on a personal level I was impressed- there were definitely travelling fans from both teams who were keen to be heard and there was a good atmosphere inside Estadi Les Comes.

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Fans look on as CEU go on the charge against FC Barcelona at Estadi Les Comes

 

I didn’t take a minute by minute recording of the game, however the one thing that impressed me was the desire to play. Now I know this isn’t a European final, the rugby isn’t professional. But a final is a final. CEU seemed to have the edge in the scrum and both sides had fairly reliable kickers. However, no matter where they were on the field, other than the occasional kick to touch, it was tap and goes. The players went for all or nothing, which of course, is a risky tactic, but a real crowd pleaser, too.

Both teams were trying things, plenty of inside balls, switch moves and long looping passes to make for a fast and open game of rugby. This was all played on a warm sunny day, on a 4G pitch which of course helped towards making the game so open and free flowing. Of course, some moves didn’t come off, there were knock ons and there were forward passes, but both sides showed real endeavour and initiative to try things and it was an exciting game to watch.

The eventual result was 19-11, the favourites FC Barcelona taking home the silverware. Overall, this seemed a fair result as FC Barcelona seemed to have just a bit more cutting edge, but the result doesn’t reflect how fast paced the game was. That said, the forwards all seemed to make better backs than scrummagers, so perhaps that can be expected. I’m now looking forward to the Beach Rugby tournament which lands in Igualada on the first week of July.

You can check out a cool clip of the game, here.

There are a few snaps of mine, and other available, here.

As usual, let me know your thoughts through the comments, or my Twitter, which you can find below!

The Scribbler, April 24th, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

The Future of Alex Cuthbert

Alex Cuthbert is a player that often divides opinion. He burst onto the scene in 2011, turning many heads by scoring two tries as Cardiff Blues overcame Racing 92 in the Heineken Cup pool stages, securing the Blues a spot in the quarter finals. The same year, arguably Wales’ biggest star of the professional era, Shane Williams, retired from National duties on 3rd December that year in his final touch of the game. Wales had lost 24-18, but the feeling inside the stadium was electric- you would’ve thought Wales had won the game by the reaction. That’s a testament to the impact he made on and off the field, a real fan favourite.

This opened up a wing berth in the Welsh team. In that same Australia game, Cuthbert came on to replace George North and seemingly did enough as he was awarded Shane Williams vacant slot for the opening game of the Six Nations, lining up with North on the other side. In his first Championship with Wales, he scored three tries in five starting appearances, one of which was the only try of the game as they overcame France 16-9 to win the grand slam.

Easily being pencilled into Wales’ starting line up, there were no surprises when Warren Gatland called Cuthbert up to the 2013 Lions team that famously won in Australia, the first Lions series victory since 1997 tour of South Africa. He played one of the tests against Australia and marked the occasion with a try. However, since 2013, he has been far less prolific in a Welsh shirt and many began to ask questions over what they saw as Gatland’s blind faith in the winger.

Eventually the inevitable happened when Cuthbert lost his wing berth, Cardiff Blues team mate Tom James taking his spot in Wales’ opening Six Nations game of 2016 against Ireland. James himself had been kept out of a Welsh jersey since 2010 and would have relished the chance to wrestle the shirt back. Although many think he did little wrong, James was dropped following the Scotland game and Cuthbert returned for the victory against France.

The next big blow for Cuthbert has come in the form of knee surgery, which will see him out of action for the remainder of the season with the Blues and unlikely to make Wales’ tour of New Zealand this summer. There is little reason for Welsh fans to panic, as Newport Gwent Dragons winger, Hallam Amos has been absolutely flying for his region, scoring four tries in two games. Having been given very little chance during the Six Nations, the summer tour could be his chance to announce himself on the international scene and lay claim to a starting wing berth.

This all looks very ominous for Cuthbert, but it could also be a huge opportunity for the Gloucester born winger. If Amos proves his worth, then Cuthbert will have some serious competition for the shirt, which you would think will help to drive him forwards a professional athlete. On the other hand, if Amos doesn’t step up to the mark, it will give Cuthbert the opportunity to come back and show Welsh fans what they have been missing.

One of the key factors in the fall of Cuthbert has often been cited as a lack of confidence. With such a long lay-off on the cards this will give him time out, to relax, refocus and on his return, to rediscover some of his previous form which led to his call up in the first place. Indeed, Cardiff Blues look to have turned the page on what has been a bumpy couple of years. It’s early days but they played some beautiful running rugby as they saw off Welsh rivals the Scarlets in the Guinness Pro 12. With a faster approach to their rugby, this could well suit Cuthbert. Despite being a large winger, he is still very agile and has a great turn of pace. If Cardiff use him well and get him into space out wide, then you can hope to see Cuthbert back to his best over the next season or so. At least that is what I’m hoping for, it would be great to see some real competition on the wings of the Welsh side.

As usual, love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter.

The Scribbler, 11th April, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

Is this years PRO12 the most exciting yet?

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Credit: Scottish Rugby

 

I should start by saying I have only followed the Pro12 with any level of interest in the last few seasons- so I’m more then willing to be told that I’m incorrect. However, in my opinion this is one of the most exciting Pro12 run-ins I’ve seen in the last few seasons.

Many Pro12 sides, especially the Irish provinces, are criticised for focussing on European rugby and not the league they play in. For teams who do this, it’s a big gamble- but if it works, it can be a huge boost. Great examples of this are Leinster and Munster. A lot of their efforts over the last decade have gone into Europe over the Pro12, but look at where they are. Leinster are three times European champions, joint best with Toulon and Munster have one the title twice. That said, they also boast a number of Pro12 titles, too.

However, when the best sides have their stars rested ahead of a European final and another side beats them, is this a significant result? Perhaps in terms of league points yes, but when it’s clearly an under strength side focussing on Europe, it feels a lot less potent and can throw the integrity of the league into question. I should add, I don’t think that this is always the case, but this is quite a popular opinion.

This, is exactly why I think that the Pro12 team’s lacklustre performance in Europe this season has been a blessing in disguise. With no teams in the Champions Cup knock out stages for the first time ever and just two in the Challenge Cup, teams have been forced to focus on the league. It’s worth highlighting that some sides such as Scarlets seemed to focus on the Pro12 over Europe this year anyway- perhaps in the knowledge of the new signings they will have, giving them a better opportunity to go further next year.

With regards to the Challenge Cup, Newport Gwent Dragons and Connacht are the two sides left representing the Pro12. With a lot of change to internal politics and the fact NGD have to travel to last year’s champions Gloucester, I see them focussing more on finishing the league on a high, than pushing on in the Challenge Cup. As for Connacht who currently sit second in the Pro12, they genuinely have a chance to beat Grenoble- but with so many injuries, especially at fly-half, I think they will be more focussed on retaining a place in the top four of the Pro12 to try and secure a first ever home semi-final, which would be a real sign of the progress made by the men out west, under head coach Pat Lam.

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AS IT STANDS: The top of the Guinness Pro12 table

Now, I’ll be honest, I haven’t done the maths, but with just four standard season games left, just eleven points separates the top seven sides. With the Italian’s firmly at the bottom of the league and taking an automatic qualification spot, this means that only the top six of the league will qualify for Champions Cup rugby. Even those who will struggle and may need a spot of luck to make the top four of the Pro12, still have a lot to play for with the lure of top flight rugby next season very real. Every game is key, even for the Italians, with just three points between them (Zebre have a difficult game in hand against Glasgow) it’s still all to play for as they battle for Champions Cup rugby.

As mentioned, being a youngster I can’t look back all that far to tell you otherwise, but the end of this season is shaping up to be one of the best I’ve seen and I think that has largely resulted from a shift of focus onto the league and really excites me for the Final in Edinburgh on May 28th. Previously, Pro12 finals haven’t been the biggest events with just over 17,000 attending last year.

I know this isn’t a huge crowd, especially not to fill BT Murrayfield, which has a capacity of over 67,000, but there is often so much negativity so often surrounding the league and I want to see people embrace the positives. Connacht’s rise to the top, Glasgow’s fight back at the end of the season, one of the most competitive season ends we’ve seen in a while and finally a big stadium to showcase, what should be a big event. If people celebrated these things, the final could be a real spectacle, with great rugby and a relatively big crowd. I have my tickets for May 28th and I can’t wait, no matter which teams make it and hope that others will really get behind this years final too.

Edit: Today, many reports have suggested that the Pro12 is struggling for viewer-ship and that Sky are considering dropping the deal. However, according to an article in Rugby World, this is not the case.

You can see my thoughts on the Pro12 on the whole here, and my views on their season in Europe, here.

If you need an incentive to attend the final, see last years highlights here, and connect with other fans on the official Facebook event.

Finally, tickets are available from the Scottish Rugby ticketing website. I look forward to meeting some of you there.

The Scribbler, April 7th, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

Top 14 sells out Camp Nou- A glance at Spanish Rugby

On 31st of March 2016, Top 14, the top French league, announced that they had sold out their final, which will be held for the first time at the 98,000 seater Camp Nou, Barcelona. They have, of course, held back some tickets for the two sides who make the final, but with so many tickets already sold, it should most certainly take the World Record for a club game, which is currently held at Wembley, where Saracens beat Harlequins in 2015 in-front of 84,068 spectators.

Top 14 organiser chose to move the final to the Catalonian capital, as the disruption caused by Rugby World Cup 2015 meant that the final is taking place a few weeks later than it would usually and therefore clashes with the Euro 2016 ballet event at Stade Francais. However, the move has allowed for a considerable increase in sales- last years final in Paris attracted nearly 20,000 less fans, as 79,000 spectators watched Stade Francais overcome Clermont.

However, what I would be interested to know, is how many French fans bought tickets and how many from Spanish shores? Of course, for some the lure of visiting a beautiful city of such sporting heritage would have attracted many- Barcelona is home to the football teams  FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol, whilst they also hosted the 1992 Olympic games. That said, by the increase in audience, I’m sure there must have been a fair amount of interest from rugby fans in the region too and not just French rugby tourists.

At present, I’m living outside of Barcelona in a small city called Igualada. It hasn’t got a huge population and of course, the majority of people here are interested in the main sports of Spain, football and basketball- oh and they also love padel and roller hockey here. However, I have been surprised with the level of interest in Rugby. There is a local team- Anoia Rugby, or the Hippos as they call themselves. Anoia boast a first team, and two junior teams, whilst women also come along to train with the men’s side twice a week. Every time a local bar has put a game on for me, there has been an interest- people ask questions, talk among themselves and genuinely seem to have an interest in the game. As a region, Catalonia has its own leagues and its own union. There seems to be a general awareness of the sport, more so than in other areas. Many people have told me that although they don’t fully understand rugby, they think it’s a very noble sport and has good values and would be interested to find out more.

As a country on the whole, World Rugby reports that there are over 50,000 registered players in the Spain. Compare that to Scotland, who reported in 2013 that they had 47,598 players. Populations overall are different, but they have good participation levels.

La Federación Española de Rugby (FER) was founded in the 1920’s and received IRB (World Rugby) affiliation in 1987. They have competed in one Rugby World Cup, in 1999, where they lost all of their games to South Africa, Scotland and Uruguay. The Women’s 7’s side have also had relative success and currently occupy a spot on the world series.

Although Spain have no professional sides, French sides Biarritz and Bayonne have strong links to the Basque Country in the north of Spain. Biarritz Olympique have played Heineken Cup matches in San Sebastián, in País Vasco (Basque Country) to sell out crowds of over 30,000 people. According to World Rugby, recent home games for Spain, played in Madrid, attracted crowds of between 7000 and 10,000. Although this is relatively small, with the numbers playing the sport, that has the potential to increase with some larger successes and wider spread exposure to rugby.

Although the game held at Camp Nou was not openly held here to increase involvement, I think it will turn some heads and hopefully increase the profile of the sport, showing that it can be a truly global event, filling an iconic, Spanish stadium. That said, don’t expect calls for Spain to join the six Nations any time soon.

Generally, my knowledge of rugby here is very limited and despite emailing the respective unions for Spain and Catalonia, I’ve received no response. Now I’m not going to go ahead and suggest that Spain are anywhere close to the likes of Georgia, let alone even Six Nations sides. One of the biggest positives for Spain and rugby is that it’s a nation in love with sport, it’s everywhere. The big downside is that it’s a nation in love with certain sports, deeply engrained in their society and they have a very proud history, especially linked to Football. However, with so many quality sporting facilities already in place across the country, 4G/3G pitches aplenty, they have a large advantage moving forward over other nations already. My hope is that the final here is a real success and that interest grows a little. Europe’s second tier, ENC2A is often neglected. But if Spain could push on and compete with the likes of Georgia, Romania and Russia, it could become a far better competition.

That, unfortunately, is a long way off, but as a lover of the sport, I feel that development here could really push the sport forwards. It’s a shame its such a minority sport here.

As ever, let me know your thoughts by commenting or tweeting me.

You can watch a World Rugby look at Spanish Rugby, from 2013, here.

The Scribbler, 1st April, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler