Saturday 15 December 2018

Comment: Are PRO14 supporters being short-changed by the absence of star names?

 

Leinster's Johnny Sexton
Leinster's Johnny Sexton
David Kelly

David Kelly

The voices are relatively hushed, for now, but the whispers of discontent may become howls of anger the closer kick-off approaches.

As ticket sales for this Saturday's Guinness PRO14 clash between Leinster and Munster edge towards the 47,000 mark, there are promising portents of an Aviva sell-out.

But also increasing fears of a selection cop-out from the respective Leinster and Munster coaches. That's because there is mounting dismay amongst some punters that the game may not deliver the bang for buck that might have been expected when they bought their tickets.

The potential absence of Jonathan Sexton from the fray may nark some people but then again around 5,000 empty spaces in the RDS for the visit of Edinburgh last weekend might lead one to suspect they weren't too concerned about seeing him play on that occasion.

An attendance figure of 46,000 for Saturday's game is a remarkable number but it is questionable whether it is accurately representative of the true constituency of regular rugby spectators in this country. Neither Munster nor Leinster can usually guarantee much beyond an average attendance figure of the mid to early teens for regular league fare.

The numbers then naturally spike for the Champions Cup, a competition that perennially means more to Irish supporters than the secondary competition.

Leinster's decision to switch their home venue with Munster was dictated by the era when the rivalry between the provinces peaked between 2006 and 2009, when they famously clashed in European semi-finals.

Those two games were imbued with naturally climactic consequences - a place in a European final was at stake. It was a match which truly defined the season - and an era - for each club.

Saturday's game is of limited consequence in season-defining terms; in fact, within the convoluted context of the league's new conference system, the sides aren't even competing within the same league ladder.

The fixture remains a part of the calendar but its intensity has naturally diminished with relatively little at stake.

With both sides eminently capable of qualifying for the play-offs, the absolute minimum aim of the two leading Irish provinces, the four points on offer this weekend will not be a vital factor in determining late season play-off berths.

If either side had deemed it so, they would have marshalled their resources accordingly in the early part of the season to ensure they were fully locked and loaded for this encounter..

They didn't, so they haven't.

For these two sides, victory last week - and victory next week - are primary considerations. Defeats this weekend are immaterial in the big picture; reverses the following week could have catastrophic consequences, however.

Most die-hard supporters will comprehend this approach. Supporters who don't get this perennial flaw in rugby's secondary competition are effectively event junkies seeking a brief interlude from their couch or bar stool.

This fixture is merely one in a long season that encompasses matches from September until May and the committed supporters who follow their sides in all weathers, against widely varying standards of opponents, will not be defined by what happens on Saturday.

Leinster fans will be no less thrilled if Ross Byrne guides them to victory on a big occasion, as he has done so before; the same applies to Munster, even if it might not be the ex-Leinster man steering the ship that many might expect.

If others seek to define the match in different terms, that is their prerogative.

There may be some who bought tickets presuming that there was a guarantee that Sexton would be amongst the starting line-up merely because his image has been deployed in Leinster's marketing and advertising of the game.

Anyone who did so is guilty of charming naivety or extreme arrogance. Ignorance of the possibility that Sexton may not feature in the fixture automatically excludes any sense of entitlement.

For those purporting to be "real" fans who feel discommoded because they were expecting his appearance, one presumes that their slavish devotion would either already have secured them a season pass for their province or, at the very least, they would have been wise enough to purchase a €10 ticket in August.

If they feel ripped off because they paid €100 for a seat - one they might vacate for much of the time anyway to head to the bar - they are most likely the kind of person whose sympathy might only be sugared by a lengthy queue at the new Krispy Kreme.

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