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