How rugby is countering the effects of Big R

STILL searching for those green shoots of recovery the economists have promised? Be alert, then, as the cameras pan out into the stands at the Stade de France tonight.

Thousands of Irish supporters have followed the Grand Slam champions to Paris, with some tour operators reporting a busy trade in all things involving the oval code in 2010. Could it be that the small ‘r’ is helping us overcome the Big R?

Sean Skehan of Killester Travel has 800 fans paying up to €525 each for the privilege of shouting on Brian O’Driscoll and company in Saint Denis today. “The numbers in France is the same as we had on our last Six Nations game there in 2008. The money is there from fans, so you could say these are green shoots of recovery.”

But does the significance of the date have a bearing? “The fact the game is in Paris on St Valentine’s weekend is certainly a help. Of the 800 travelling, 200 are women which would be above the norm.”

But Paris isn’t the only destination of choice for romantic Irish rugby fans, according to Skehan.

He added: “Three years ago when Ireland played Italy in Rome on St Patrick’s Day we had 1,400 there. The costs of flights, tickets and hotels are similar today as then.”

The incoming President of Irish Travel Agents Association, Pat Dawson, admits to being taken aback by the interest levels for the trip to France, given the pessimism when the fixtures were first issued.

The Dawson Travel chief said: “When we were looking at this game originally, we were considering chartering a smaller aircraft and looking at predominantly three star hotels. We were being very cautious about the numbers and the costs involved. Then we were blown away by the enquiry level from the public with the vast majority looking at the four-star accommodation option and the more expensive match tickets. We have been full since last Monday and had a waiting list of 22 people.”

Dawson agreed Valentine’s weekend may have increased interest. But only marginally.

“The Rome and Paris trip predominantly attract couples. St Valentines would have a bearing but the majority of those travelling would be going for the rugby and not just for the romantic weekend.”

Both agree that the national team’s Grand Slam success, coupled with Leinster’s Heineken Cup heroics last season and Munster’s love affair with European competition has edged rugby to the top of the pile in terms of sports travel.

Skehan noted: “Rugby in general has been hugely successful across the board. We have 90 people already registered for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand next year at a cost of €5,500 per person.

“Admittedly they have just put their names down to go and haven’t paid anything but it shows the interest is huge. I suspect if Ireland play poorly in the Six Nations that figure would drop but if they win the Grand Slam you could talk about tripling that figure.”

Dawson has had a front row seat for Munster’s exploits on the road and is hoping for more of the same this season.

“Munster and Leinster have been hugely popular. We will be waiting on the Munster quarter-final against Northampton and the hope would be that they progress to a semi-final against Biarritz in San Sebastian. The last time Munster were down there it was, despite the result, one of the best trips we have ever been involved in.”

One of the core markets in Dawson’s business has been the pilgrimages to top flight Premier League and Champions League games. He says:

“Because of the tightness now at the top of the table there has been a pick up in the last number of weeks.”

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