Sport Rugby

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Funding comes first but ticket prices could see return to elitist days of Tarquins and Fauntleroys

A new class divide

Hugh Farrelly

TWO redevelopments ago, when Thomond Park still had its rickety old wooden stand, Munster Schools Cup games used to provide an illuminating snapshot of the elitist attitudes in Irish rugby.

Bus-loads of well-heeled, private schoolboys from Cork would be ferried up to Limerick to cheer on their teams with warnings to "stick together" and "don't antagonise the locals". In broad brushstrokes, schools rugby in Cork was a game for the upper-middle class strata of Leeside society -- if you didn't pay, you didn't play. Schools rugby in Limerick was a game for everyone.

Trips to the Treaty City were viewed in the same fashion as Little Lord Fauntleroy's visits to the tenant slums. Once inside the ground, the Fauntleroys would stock up on apples, chocolate and 'minerals' before being shepherded to their block of seats in the stand.

Emboldened by numbers and infected by chants, the superiority complex was impossible to resist. Rival supporters from Limerick would be regaled by songs referring to how they "live in caravans, doo, da, doo, da" and then the Fauntleroys would amuse themselves by lobbing coins and apples onto the ground, so they could laugh at groups of local children (Dickens would have called them 'urchins') scrambling frantically to retrieve them.

That was then, or so we thought ...

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Rugby in Ireland has come a long way in 25 years. Limerick was always an exception, but the game in the rest of the country has traditionally been the preserve of the privately educated, who would go on to study in one of the NUI third-level institutions before securing a respectable job, frequently by way of the 'old boys network'.

However, the appeal and accessibility of the game has broadened hugely since those days. The successes of Munster, Leinster and Ireland have seen more and more schools taking up the sport and rugby has made its way into the rural areas also, becoming a genuine recruitment rival where previously GAA and soccer held sway. And, when rugby was welcomed into Croke Park between 2007 and 2010, there was ample room to cater for the expanded grassroots.

The move back to Lansdowne Road has seen the shutters come down. The capacity of 50,000 immediately locked out 30-odd thousand who would have attended Ireland's bigger internationals and, while Croke Park tickets were not exactly cheap by international standards, the pricing policy for the redeveloped stadium puts us in 'shirt off your back' territory.

Ireland play South Africa, Samoa, New Zealand and Argentina in November and the desire to maximise revenue saw the IRFU originally offer tickets in four-game blocks that worked out at between €340 and €425 for one ticket per match.

This policy was altered last week when the packages were split into blocks of two games -- South Africa and Samoa (€150-€185) for one ticket per match and New Zealand and Argentina (€190-€240).

Although the chances of making two games is greater than attending all four, the cost is still daunting, particularly if you are travelling from outside Dublin.

Scott Holden is a New Zealander living in Ireland since the late 1980s. Marrying an Irish girl, he settled in Cork and become involved in local rugby. The visit of the All Blacks is always a highlight on Holden's calendar and he has been present for each of their Dublin victories over Ireland in 1989, '97, 2001, '05 and '08. Holden would love to travel up with his wife to see Richie McCaw and his team on November 20, but says the cost is simply too high.

"There's no way I can afford it this time," he says. "Two tickets would set us back €380, even though we would have no plans to go up for Argentina. A return train ticket from Cork to Dublin is €71 each and because it's a 5.30 kick-off we'd need to stay the night, so that would mean a hotel room, say around €100. Then you have spending money, food, drink and taxis which, conservatively, would be around €200 for the two of us. I don't know what that adds up to, but I'd say it's the cost of a holiday."

It adds up to €822.

If the Holdens wanted to travel up to the Argentina game the following weekend you'd be talking more than a grand for 160 minutes of rugby action.

As for bringing the kids along, well then you're really into silly money... a week in Gran Canaria watching the match in an Irish pub seems a pretty attractive alternative.

David Pomeroy, another Cork-based Kiwi who married a local girl, is in a similar position.

"My parents are travelling over from New Zealand, the first time they have been able to get over since they came for my wedding six years ago," says Pomeroy.

"The plan was to take them to see Ireland play the All Blacks but the cost of doing that is just crazy. I worked out that it is actually cheaper to take my parents to Edinburgh to see the All Blacks play Scotland rather than to go to Dublin for the New Zealand-Ireland match."

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"What about the children?" Tommy Gorman famously asked Roy Keane following the midfielder's departure from Ireland's 2002 World Cup squad.

The enduring appeal and progression of sport is fostered in the young. Going to matches as a child develops the devotion and creates the next generation of players and supporters to sustain the game. Schoolboy tickets to see South Africa or New Zealand will set parents back €40.

When comparing rugby in Ireland to other countries, Scotland is generally the first port of call. The national teams have, by and large, been operating at the same level behind England and Wales in terms of playing base and Five/Six Nations achievements since rugby became an international sport. Thus, the disparity in prices for the chance to see the All Blacks in November is especially startling.

Category One tickets for Murrayfield are listed at £45 (€54), with schoolboy tickets available for £22.50 (€27). Category Two tickets are £25 (€30) and £12.50 (€15) and Category Three for as little as £20 (€24) and £10 (€12).

In England, tickets for the New Zealand, South Africa and Australia November matches are not yet available, but for the Samoa game they are on offer at £25 (€30) and £10 (€12) for adults and schoolboys respectively.

In Wales, the prices for the November Tests against the southern hemisphere nations range from £75 down to £40 for adults, with schoolboy tickets at £25.

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Helped by the sponsorship money ploughed in by Aviva, the IRFU have developed an impressive home for Irish rugby. Capacity remains a key issue, but action had to be taken -- even though subsequent about-turn shenanigans at GAA's congress could have altered the process had they been made sooner.

The Union have an impressive record when it comes to their financial affairs and, compared to the chaotic activities of their FAI co-habitors, the IRFU have looked ultra-professional. Their ticket policy is based on simple market forces which decree that when supply does not meet demand, prices must go up.

However, the upshot is that this is a stadium for people with money and likely to be filled with the type of Fauntleroys ho used to lob coins at Limerick youngsters for elitist laughs.

It may be seen as a necessary financial step by the IRFU bean-counters, but in terms of broadening the grassroots the Union are so keen to nurture, it looks like a backward one. As an Ireland fan commented caustically in one of many online debates: "A year from now when they're left with a stadium full of Tarquins and Benedicts giving the game a cursory glance while discussing their offshore investments, they'll be wondering what happened to the atmosphere."

There may well be Tarquins, Benedicts and Fauntleroys in Lansdowne Road this November, but with many 'ordinary' rugby followers priced out of the stadium, if they are looking for old-school kicks, they may be forced to chuck their excess change at each-other.

Paying the price

Cost for two adults travelling from Cork to attend Ireland v All Blacks

Tickets: €380 (must pay for two matches)

Train: €142

Hotel: €100 (late-kick-off)

Expenses: €200

Irish Independent

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