Why were the crowd still eating chips when the chips were down for Ireland?
Some fans did make it in before the kick-off at the Aviva on Sunday, but the crowd failed to maintain the kind of fevered atmosphere that greeted Brian O'Driscoll try against France at the old Lansdowne Road in 2007. Photographs: Inpho/Eric Luke
On Sunday morning, I woke up at seven and the first thing I thought about was the game against England. Three o’clock couldn’t come quick enough. I went on Twitter to gauge what people were saying about it. I read the papers. I wasn’t doing it as a rugby analyst or even as an ex-player – I was doing it as a supporter.
I was really looking forward to going to the stadium and getting a feel of the atmosphere.
I presumed it would be electric. Why wouldn’t it be? With France losing a second home game on Saturday, we couldn’t have asked for better:England in the Aviva with a chance to take a huge step towards winning the competition outright and maybe start thinking about a Grand Slam.
But it didn’t turn out that way at all. And look, before I get into it, I know there are loads of reasons why it didn’t and I totally understand them.
A Sunday afternoon kick-off will always bring a different atmosphere to a Saturday tea-time one. The weather was miserable and some people would have been cold and wet for long spells of the game.
Above all, Ireland didn’t play well – or weren’t allowed to by a really professional and well-drilled England team.
I’m not arguing with any of that. But I’d love somebody to explain to me what any of it has to do with the stadium being half-empty as the Ireland team ran out on the pitch.
I’m talking about 10 minutes before the game kicked-off, when nobody knew how the day would pan out. Nobody had dropped a ball yet or knocked on or pulled up injured. Surely at that point, every Irish supporter must have been full of hope and raring to go?
So where were they? I looked around as the teams came out of the tunnel and the amount of empty seats was baffling to me.
Why wouldn’t you want to be there to have the place shaking as Jamie Heaslip led the team out? This is England at home, a game you only get to see every two years.
Every half-interested sports fan in the country would have snapped your arm off for a ticket. So why not be in your seat in time to welcome the team?
There’s no doubt the new stadium has changed what it means to be a supporter. In the old Lansdowne Road (and in the old Thomond Park), the terracing meant people had to get in early to get a good spot. So you regularly had a decent enough crowd in a half an hour before the game.
They stood and watched the teams warm up and got the atmosphere bubbling up the closer it got to kick-off.
I’m not saying this happened all the time – there’s nothing more boring than someone who goes on about how it was all better in the old days – but I guarantee you an England game in those circumstances would have had the old Lansdowne Road buzzing 20 minutes before the game.
As it was, you could almost have counted the people who were in their seats during the warm-up. That’s down to the make-up of the stadium, no question about it.
People will hang on as long as they can to get a last pint in at the bar, to get a bit of food or a coffee, or whatever. They’re in the stadium alright, just not in the seats. They can watch the teams come out on one of the wall TVs all over the place.
Overall, everything possible is done to distract people from going to their seat, purely so they will spend more money. The stadium is a business after all and it needs a revenue stream.
Maybe I’m a bit naive and maybe I’m hoping for too much here. But I don’t really get the mentality of somebody who has spent a fortune on a ticket to go and see a game like this but isn’t there to relish the atmosphere 10 minutes before the game.
And I’m not talking about the prawn sandwich crowd here – I mean the ordinary Joe Soaps with normal stand tickets. I couldn’t understand why the stadium wasn’t jammed to the roof in time for the anthems.
In fairness, they were mostly in for the kick-off but as soon as the initial roar died down the stadium was very quiet. Again, I know the Sunday afternoon is a factor here. And of course the team didn’t exactly set the world alight from the beginning. The amount of handling errors was obviously costly because it meant the ball kept getting turned over but it also killed any chance of building up intensity or momentum in the crowd.
When I wrote before about the problems there had been in Thomond Park with some people just turning up to be entertained, I had plenty of fellas pulling me aside and saying the players had to take some responsibility here. Their point was you can’t expect supporters just to blindly roar their team on if what they’re seeing out on the pitch isn’t up to scratch. I see what they mean but I don’t think it totally stands up – in fact, that sort of thinking releases the supporters from any responsibility.
You might argue that just buying the ticket is your only responsibility as a fan but I don’t believe that and what’s more, the Ireland supporters at the game on Sunday didn’t believe that.
The reason you know they didn’t is the noise they made every time the England supporters started singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. It was met with boos and whistles each time and then a bit of a roar from the Ireland fans before it all settled down again.
To me, it seemed like the Ireland supporters knew they were supposed to be getting involved and they were annoyed at the England fans who were showing them up. You shouldn’t have to wait for the opposition’s fans to get going before you react.
The worst thing I saw on Sunday, though, came at the start of the second half. I was working for RTÉ Radio and we were on air all the way through half-time. So once we handed back to the commentary team, I took the chance to head off to the toilet.
When I came out to go back to my seat the game was back on and running but I was blown away by what I saw. There were hundreds of people just milling around, standing there having a drink and watching the game on the screens. They weren’t queuing for a pint or for food, they were just standing there looking up at the TV.
I couldn’t believe it. Why would you bother making the effort to go to the stadium if all you were going to do was stand there and watch it on TV?
Ireland were 6-0 down but they were starting to come back. They had won that first scrum penalty and were starting to build a bit of momentum. I found it a totally unreal situation that the game was going on just through the gangway to their right and yet people were in no rush to get back to their seats. Instead they were just chatting away, not a bother on them.
I actually got pretty angry about it. You go to a sporting occasion because of what’s happening on the pitch. In a game like this one, where the tide was against Ireland but they were coming back into it how can you just be casually sipping at a drink or picking away at a bag of chips? Why not bring them to your seat? At least then when something happens, you can be a part of it.
If you go to a game, you have to try and get behind your team. It can’t just be entertainment or a social occasion – those things have to be secondary, especially on a day when the whole Six Nations could possibly be up for grabs. That was the case on Sunday but it never really felt like it.
I’d love to say it was all down to the weather or the timing or the players but anybody who was in that stadium on Sunday knows there was more to it. They know in their heart and soul that the crowd just didn’t play its part.
You can’t blame the players for not being in your seat as the team walks out and being 6-0 down while playing poorly is no excuse for waiting 10 minutes after half-time to rejoin the action.
On a wet day, players are going to make handling errors. Ireland made enough to last them a lifetime on Sunday and England made hardly any.
I thought those two scrums at the start of the second half looked like being a turning point but it just never happened because England were so good at keeping Ireland pushed back and under wraps. We’re very quick to criticise the Irish team and I don’t think England have got enough credit for the way they played on Sunday. They shut Ireland down from start to finish.
But as good as they were, I’d say they were pleasantly surprised by how easy they found it to silence the crowd. This wasn’t a win they had to dig out in a hostile atmosphere.
Given the circumstances and what was at stake, that’s a sad indictment of the home crowd.