At face value, European rugby’s semi-finals bore all the hallmarks of sell-out occasions: The champions of England against the Red Army in one, the holders at home in Dublin against the most famous of French clubs in the other.
The venues, surely, wouldn’t take that much filling for such a stellar cast. The Ricoh Arena and Aviva Stadium offered just enough by way of collective capacity to match the tournament’s semi-final record, when Munster-Leinster packed Croke Park to its steepling rafters 10 years ago.
Instead the organisers found themselves confronted by the alarming sight of empty seats at both showpiece events, 26,158 of them. While the majority were at Coventry, one third, almost 9,000, could be found in Dublin for Leinster-Toulouse.
It prompts an awkward question: Is the Champions’ Cup still all it’s cracked up to be?
The four semi-finals staged at the Aviva before last Sunday — as a home venue for Leinster, twice, Munster and Ulster once — averaged as near 49,000 as makes no difference. Leinster v Toulouse eight years ago topped 50,000.
The organisers will trot out the usual excuses, blaming the weather, the bank-holiday weekend, too few trains from London to Coventry, which conveniently overlooks the fact that Saracens only contributed 4,000 to a half-empty stadium. But for the Red Army it would have been emptier still.
None of that offers a credible explanation as to why the tournament’s box-office has faded to such an extent that it cannot sell out a ground of modest capacity (32,609) as Wasps almost did for a routine English Premiership match against Bath just before Christmas.
Perhaps the biggest bashing to ticket sales has come from their escalating prices. The most expensive seats for the Munster game were £65 (€75), while it was €80 to see Leinster’s semi-final.
A little research into the subject reveals a startling fact, that the price of watching the Champions’ Cup final has soared by a staggering 60% in five years.
Even those sick, sore, and tired of being asked to dig ever deeper into their pockets will be surprised at the severity of the hike. The highest priced tickets for the 2014 final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff between Toulon and Saracens cost £75 (€86).
At St James’ Park in Newcastle for the Leinster-Saracens final next month, the most expensive tickets are £120 (€138). That is more than Wales charged for their home games against England and Ireland en route to the Grand Slam.
In the glory days of the 1970s, the Welsh Rugby Union boasted the most entertaining rugby at the cheapest price which chimed with their largely blue-collar support. How times change.
Never slow now, like the rest, to squeeze more out of the fans, the WRU have long been accused of slamming the door on their working-class clientele. By and large, they have gone the way of the coalmines and the steelworks.
Regrettably too many of the game’s power-brokers appear to have run roughshod over the old maxim that the lower the admission charges, the higher the attendance. No subsequent Champions Cup final has had an attendance come remotely close to the one at Cardiff for Toulon-Saracens: 67,578.
Clermont-Toulon at Twickenham in 2015 reached 56,622; Saracens-Racing in Lyon 58,017; Clermont-Saracens at Murrayfield 55,272; and Leinster-Racing at Bilbao last year 52,282. St James’ Park (52,354) will fall into that category.
It represents quite a drop from what may come to be seen as the golden years of the Heineken Cup from 2006 to 2008 when Munster twice packed the Millennium Stadium to the gunnels and Wasps-Leicester did likewise at Twickenham for the final in between.
World Rugby always made their position very clear, that they would never sanction any event that would undermine the supreme status of the World Cup — until someone came along to their Dublin HQ pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with €5.75bn.
At that point the status of the World Cup immediately became less than supreme. The prospect of all those notes in return for giving marketing and media rights to that nice company in Switzerland run by Sepp Blatter’s nephew, Phillippe, would change the game on a global scale.
A World League would be played in non-World Cup years and someone who seemed to have a sharp sense of irony gave the unions a deadline of March 29 for deciding whether they were in.
Like Brexit, it came and went with a new deadline set for next month.
Another nine-figure sum is also sloshing around the European game, as offered by the private equity company CVC Partners for commercial rights to the Six Nations, English Premiership, and PRO14.
The English clubs having already taken the money, reputedly €250m for a 27% stake, the PRO14 will inevitably follow suit, prompting those who believe in such a thing to revive hopes of a British and Irish League.
Why would the game even consider such a move given that it would in reality be a Heineken Cup without the French?
And why on earth would the English agree to destroy the best-supported of Europe’s three leagues just to help the impoverished Welsh regions on some romantic notion of rekindling fond memories of a time long gone?
And why, above all, is the game in such an apparent rush to sell its soul, or whatever’s left of it?
For what? An inter-hemisphere decider between Leinster and the Crusaders on neutral ground in Ho Chi Minh City...?
Mike Phillips, the former Wales and Lions scrum-half, posed a question on Twitter about the Saracens-Leinster final in Newcastle: “Shouldn’t this game be played at a neutral venue?”
For the record, the distance between Dublin and Newcastle as the crow, or plane, flies is 219 miles. The distance from London to the same place via the same crow or plane is 248 miles which, if anything, makes it marginally less of an away match for Leinster.
It also makes Phillips’ grasp of geography seem almost as dodgy as Crystal Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey’s understanding of the Second World War. His fellow Welshman swore before an FA tribunal that he had never heard of the Nazi salute which he was alleged to have made.
If Benetton Treviso beat Zebre in Parma on Saturday, an Italian team will have reached the PRO14 play-offs for the first time. Barring an improbable set of results elsewhere, they will have helped create a Welsh exclusion zone.
Grand slams, it would appear, count for nothing when it comes to play-offs even if the six positions on offer extend almost halfway down each of the two conferences. As their teams meet on ‘Judgement Day VII’ in front of 50,000 or so at the Principality Stadium, judgement has already been passed by the PRO14 — not good enough.
A Treviso win would end the faint hope of a top-three finish for Scarlets and leave the under-achieving Welsh quartet nothing more uplifting to aim for than a back-door entrance into the Heineken Cup via the last qualifying place. It will feature Cardiff Blues or Ospreys who meet on Saturday and Scarlets or Edinburgh, if they upset Glasgow which would wipe the Welsh out of Europe’s main event next season en masse.
The Lions are said to be finalising Warren Gatland’s reappointment for a third successive tour as head coach, to South Africa in 2021. It raises a question: how many more titles does Mark McCall need to win before he is considered worthy for such a position?
In ten years under his direction, initially as head coach, latterly as director of rugby, Saracens have won four English Premiership titles and two European Champions’ Cups. They are in with a chance of adding one more of each in the next few weeks.
In recent years the Lions have not been slow to create positions for all manner of specialist coaches. Tours come and go and McCall keeps on at the top of his game across England and Europe, as yet still without any due acknowledgement from the best of British and Irish.