Peter Jackson.


Empty seats the price of ever-escalating ticket costs

Every Six Nations weekend generates a blizzard of statistics, come hail or shine, writes Peter Jackson.

Empty seats the price of ever-escalating ticket costs

Every Six Nations weekend generates a blizzard of statistics, come hail or shine, writes Peter Jackson.

They account for every tackle, every break, every set-piece, and every kick — save for the one that left the gaping hole in a touchline hoarding at Murrayfield.

Scotland’s full back may have redefined the meaning of the phrase ‘going the whole Hogg’ in his petulance, but there is another stat which the number-crunchers chose not to mention.

It runs high into five figures and, according to my arithmetic, stands this morning at 52,332 and does not refer to the pints of beer pulled at Twickenham yesterday.

It represents the number of empty seats over the course of the two opening rounds.

For an event that has long prided itself in sell-out occasions across all six capitals, that number rather shatters the image of the tournament’s irresistible box-office appeal.

It is a fact that no stadium on earth could cope with the demand for Wales-England in Cardiff later this month. Twickenham is packed, likewise Murrayfield and Dublin — if only because the Aviva takes a lot less filling — but the same can no longer be said of Paris and Rome.

The Stade de France produced a chastening sight 10 days ago off the field, never mind on it. For the first time, France played a championship match in a stadium one-quarter empty at 60,000, the smallest for a Six Nations fixture in Paris.

None of the mitigating circumstances — Friday night, heavy rain, often shambolic home team — amounted to a plausible explanation for absenteeism on such a grand scale.

As if that wasn’t worrying enough, Italy-Wales in Rome gave the competition a still colder shoulder with an all-time low.

The Stadio Olimpico was barely half-full at 38,700, which left another 31,934 empty seats to be added to the 20,698 in Paris.

Since England were there this time last year, the Eternal City’s support has shrunk by almost 40%.

A losing team takes some supporting, all the more so when the team in question has lost 19 championship matches, most of them by a margin as wide as St Peter’s Square.

Hardly surprising that Saturday’s front pages of Italy’s two major sports dailies, Corriere dello Sport and La Gazzetta, made no mention of the Sei Nazioni.

The overall tournament average reached a peak of almost 70,000 seven years ago, but since then it has come down on an almost annual basis to 66,123 last season. It’s the penalty the game pays for ever-escalating ticket prices, and could be easily interpreted.

When is advantage not an advantage?

Greig Laidlaw’s moan about the referee, Romain Poite, evoked memories of days long-gone, when we’d routinely lose to the posh schools in Belfast and our captain would say: ‘Never mind, boys. The effin’ ref doesn’t like us, ’cos we’re from Derry.’

The Scotland captain’s choice to take aim at the softest of targets, rather than his own team for their many mistakes, did highlight one issue worthy of serious debate. Law 7 on advantage has been there since shortly after the Webb Ellis fellow ran away with the ball during a soccer match at Rugby School in 1823.

Almost 200 years later, the law still fails to offer referees the world over the faintest clue as to a time limit on advantage, whether it’s ten seconds or two minutes.

The wording of the law is confined to three definitions of when advantage is to be applied:

(a) ‘when the referee deems that the non-offending team has gained an advantage.

(b) ‘when the referee deems that the non-offending team is unlikely to gain an advantage.

(c) ‘when the non-offending team commits an infringement before they have gained an advantage.’

How long advantage is played varies from referee to referee. The Scots felt that Poite, having given Ireland a penalty, gave them long enough to not to go back for the shot at goal that ultimately cost them a losing bonus point.

“He doesn’t seem to like us, Romain,” Laidlaw blethered, to use a Scottish word.

“He reffed us against South Africa (last November) as well. We don’t seem to see eye-to-eye.”

Having played to the gallery by blaming the referee, Laidlaw then ended his rant with a comment which must already rank as the No. 1 contender for the most gratuitous of the tournament: “We’re not going to blame him.”

‘Sportsmanship’ not in Sinckler vocabulary

One of the buzzwords emblazoned across the England dressing-room reminds those who inhabit the place of the need for ‘sportsmanship’.

Maybe someone in the massed ranks of the Red Rose management ought to take Kyle Sinckler aside and explain what the word means.

The Harlequins prop took advantage of a touchline scuffle against France to give Arthur Iturria a condescending slap on the top of the France flanker’s scrum-capped head. The incident was right up Nigel Owens’ street.

“I did speak to you before on rugby values,” the Welsh referee told Sinckler.

“I’ve seen you smacking him in the scrum-cap on the head. “Let that be the end of it.”

The end of it ought to have been 10 minutes in the bin. The deterrent-effect of a yellow card needs to be used and the same applies to players calling for cards to be used against opponents, an ugly bud in urgent need of nipping, if you ask me.

Faster than a Ferrari

If the Ferrari propping Italy’s scrum (Simone, the Treviso tighthead) has been wondering where all the Lamborghinis have gone, Twickenham yesterday would have convinced him they have all been commandeered by England.

Even Dimitri Yachvili, the scrum-half who twice almost single-handedly beat England home and away, sounded as though he felt he’d turned up at Monza or the Nurburgring.

“It’s like England are playing in a Formula One car,’’ he said. “The speed is too much.’’

The happiest of hunting grounds

Stand-in Wales captain Jonathan Davies, clutching any straw in defence of his team’s shabby performance, talked about Rome being ‘a difficult place to play rugby.’ So difficult, in fact, that in their six previous matches there Italy had conceded 37 tries, including nine to Ireland. Wales managed a miserable two.

Team of the weekend

15. Rob Kearney (Ireland).

14. Damian Penaud (France).

13. Henry Slade (England).

12. Manu Tuilagi (England).

11. Jonny May (England).

10. Owen Farrell (England).

9. Ben Youngs (England).

1. Allan Dell (Scotland).

2. Rory Best (Ireland).

3. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland).

4. James Ryan (Ireland).

5. Courtney Lawes (England).

6. Peter O’Mahony (Ireland).

7. Braam Steyn (Italy).

8. Louis Picamoles (France).

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