Trying times for rugby as fans vote with their feet
THE best seats in the house were empty as much of the first international rugby match in the redeveloped Lansdowne Road stadium was played in eerie silence -- and worse is expected next weekend.
Embarrassed rugby chiefs were forced into a humiliating climbdown after admitting the high prices demanded for match tickets had backfired spectacularly on them.
Thousands of fans simply voted with their feet on Saturday and watched Ireland's 23-21 defeat in pubs and at home.
The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) told the Irish Independent last Friday that it didn't expect the game between Ireland and South Africa to sell out -- but the fact that one-third of the stadium was empty still came as a shock.
Although fans are normally given attendance figures in a live public announcement, rugby bosses decided not to give out the bad news.
It was no surprise: only 35,715 people attended the game against the world champions, far short of the 51,700 capacity. And just 20,000 are expected for next week's game against the minnows of Samoa.
The low turnout forced Irish out-half Ronan O'Gara to issue a plea yesterday for fans to show up and lend support.
"I don't know how many were there but there were empty seats all over the stadium," he said. "It's probably a sign of things to come. We need the supporters -- it's because of them that Ireland have been so good for so long. At the old Lansdowne Road there was an unbelievable atmosphere, so passionate and driven. We have to get those days back."
Tickets were originally sold in a bundle for Ireland's four games this autumn, but fans objected to an asking price of €340 and the games were repackaged into bundles of two.
The first package was for the South Africa and Samoa games, and cost €150. The second bundle was for matches against New Zealand and Argentina, and cost €190.
But in what is a huge embarrassment to the IRFU, cash-strapped rugby fans simply refused to bite.
In a dramatic U-turn, the union will now sell tickets for Saturday's game with Samoa for €50 each. Single tickets are also available for the Argentina game on November 28, priced at €95 each.
A spokesman for the IRFU said there was no particular reason why the match attendance figure wasn't publicly announced, despite it being the usual practice, and that the media were told of the number of tickets sold after the match.
The IRFU expects tickets for the All Blacks and Argentina matches to "sell better".
The spokesman admitted that the IRFU got its ticket pricing wrong.
"It is disappointing but the union has put its hand up in the air," he said.
A full review of pricing will take place after the November tests, after which prices for the Six Nations games in the spring will be set.
All the weekend's rugby: See Sport, Pages 65-71