Saracens bring Heineken Cup rugby to Belgium
EUROPEAN rugby enters new ground on Saturday when Saracens play a 'home' match in Brussels designed to spread interest in the game and enhance Belgium's status as an emerging rugby nation.
Saracens, who have mooted playing Heineken Cup fixtures in Cape Town and New York, will host Racing Metro 92 of Paris in a pool-phase tie in the King Baudouin Stadium, normally a venue for soccer and athletics.
Brussels Mayor Freddy Thielemans believes the match will place the city on the rugby map internationally, persuading other clubs to come.
The fact that he is a former prop explains his interest. The match resulted from a conversation with an ex-Saracens player he knew. Brussels also hopes to benefit economically, and Visit Brussels says the average foreign tourist to the city spends 170 euros per day.
Saracens, who have held coaching sessions in Brussels in the past weeks, say they expect some 2,000 travelling fans. A similar number are predicted to arrive from Paris.
Organisers estimate the crowd will reach 20,000-30,000, drawn from Belgium's rugby community and the many expatriates who live in Brussels.
Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths believes the game would have attracted some 7,000 people if held in their normal home of Watford. “There is an audience in Brussels,” he said.
Belgium will become the 10th nation to stage a Heineken Cup match, but this is the cup's first real excursion.
Other than games in the seven participant nations, matches in San Sebastian and Barcelona in Spain and Switzerland's Geneva were short, cross-border forays by neighbouring French teams.
“It's important for us that we have this chance to show we can organise a big event. We have made a shift from amateur to semi-pro and are at something of a turning point,” said Jan Coupe, president of the Belgian rugby federation.
Saracens have played at Twickenham and Wembley stadiums, including a March match against Harlequins in front of a world-record club crowd of almost 84,000. They plan in February to move to a new home with a synthetic pitch, another first for the English premiership.