Whole Aviva experience for fans the real problem

Wed, Feb 20, 2013, 00:00

In his analysis of what went wrong at the Aviva Stadium when Ireland lost to England earlier this month, Alan Quinlan got it wrong. No about what happened on the pitch, but about what was happening in the stands.

Alan had a go at the Irish supporters, blaming them for the lack of atmosphere in the ground, the half empty stands when the team took to the pitch and the delay by thousands of people in taking their seats after half-time.

He was right about one thing, the Aviva Stadium, more often than not, has no atmosphere of excitement or anticipation, the sense of occasion you should get at any big sporting event.

Utterly wrong

But Alan is utterly wrong on something else; you cannot blame supporters for the lack of atmosphere.

The blame lies elsewhere and, unless the situation is rectified more or less immediately, seats at Lansdowne Road will be empty not just when the teams come out of the tunnel but for the whole match.

I can count on one hand the number of home internationals I have missed since 1985. I missed the Martin Johnson red-carpet Grand Slam decider in 2003, but I managed to watch the game live. I was in a makeshift British Army camp on the road to Basra during the invasion of Iraq.

Someone from the BBC pulled down a satellite feed of the game and a dozen or so of us journalists sat between the tanks to watch. We were surrounded by squaddies; half of them from the Irish Guards, who were shouting for Ireland, the rest were rooting for England. Now that had an atmosphere.

Like Alan Quinlan, I have been to rugby stadiums all over Europe with Ireland and Munster. Like him, I too went along to the England game full of hope and expectation, but I also knew that the day would be nothing like what we might have expected in the old Lansdowne Road. Because, since the move to the new stadium something very important has been lost on the day of a rugby international – a sense of occasion

Several reasons

There are several reasons for this, some the fault of the stadium and many the fault of the IRFU. Both seem to have forgotten what made a rugby international special and the supporters can only contribute so much to that.

In the old Lansdowne, a lethally dangerous shed where the underside of the North Terrace was an accident waiting to happen; you had to get into the ground early to get a place.

‘Facilities’ were practically nonexistent, but a large group of you could go to the terraces together, starting your own atmosphere.

After the game there were temporary bars behind each of the stands which could cater for thousands of people. For an hour or two afterwards you could stand in a huge tent and meet just about everyone you knew. It was a major social occasion in a supporters’ area of the ground and a huge attraction for people to travel from all over the country to attend an international.

Last Sunday week the supporter experience at the Aviva couldn’t have been more different. Sunday games kill an atmosphere like nothing else and the days of going with a crowd are gone.

Because your ticket will allow you in through a specific turnstile only, you will probably enter and make you way to your seat on your own. Try starting an atmosphere in a stand full of individuals on their own, Alan!

Whole place

Having paid €95 for a ticket (including IRFU handling fee) you then make your way to your seat through the grimmest, ugliest and most vile -smelling “supporters area” you can imagine.

The bars under the stands make the back of a bicycle shed look like Brown Thomas’s window they are so grim, and the whole place is stifling with the vilest smelling burgers (now tainted with the horse meat scandal – no surprise there).

These areas are so bad that no one lingers there after a game; everyone gets out of the place as quickly as possible. It’s no wonder then that, having paid so much for a ticket, people try to squeeze a drink in at half-time or before the game, to try and get some value out of the experience inside the ground.

By the way if you are in the premium seats and feel the need for the bathroom at half -time, it will take you 15 minutes to get through to the tiny toilets and back. The only two decent supporter areas in the ground, the bars at Premium level, have heavy -handed security people to keep people OUT of them after the game.

New stadium

Last October we went to Stade de France to see Munster (Tickets €25) and next month we will be in Rome for the Ireland game (Category One tickets €65).

The Italy game will be in a new stadium for us but both the Italians and the French cater for supporters well with open air bars, good food and music to keep you around the ground for an hour and maybe two, soaking up the atmosphere after a game.

The worrying thing about the Aviva stadium at the moment is the number of people who no longer go to games. The stadium is smaller than ever, but it has never been easier to get tickets. This really has nothing to do with the recession.

Stalwarts of the game are no longer going to internationals, the number of women attending has fallen hugely and just about everyone I know is questioning the product.

The IRFU will put a large tranche of five- and ten-year tickets on the market this year. These will be sold at a 35 per cent reduction on similar tickets sold before the Aviva opened.

Unless they really shake up what they are offering off the pitch, they haven’t a hope of selling those tickets and no amount of lecturing of supporters by spoilt former players will change that.

* Fergal Keane is a reporter/presenter with RTÉ Radio. He has been involved in rugby all his adult life, lately as a mini-rugby coach. Twitter: @fergalrte.

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