Gerry Thornley: Without crowds, matches are just upgraded training sessions
It’s impossible to expect the matches to be of the same quality with no supporters present
Munster v Leinster at a spectator-free Thomond Park, Limerick last Saturday. Crowds are a match’s beating heart. They are a game’s soundtrack. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Chess, poker, tiddlywinks and maybe lawn green bowling are meant to be played in silence. Rugby, like virtually all team sports, is not. These are grim times, for sure, and while some degree of live sport is a welcome distraction, not least from sports repeats, it’s simply impossible to expect the matches to be of the same quality with no supporters present.
If the last several months of fan-free sports has told us anything, it is that real, live, breathing, partisan, applauding, shouting, cheering and chanting supporters are almost as vital a component of the match-day experience as the participants themselves.
The players, and their increasingly willing accomplices amongst their replacements and support staff, can only do so much to generate some noise on the pitch. And, while this is understandable, to be truthful it comes across as a little over the top, even if it’s born out of a willingness to generate energy within a group and, of course, let your opponents know how much it matters.
This is particularly so if it follows an opponent spilling the ball. It had become an increasing trend anyway, and this Covid-era period has accelerated this, but it’s all a little too Saracens-like.
A packed crowd, not least at Thomond Park last Saturday, would not only have drowned out all of this while affording silence for goal kicks, but would have added so much more as well.
Judging by WhatsApp groups and social media, the reaction to last Saturday’s Munster-Leinster game was decidedly underwhelming. Perhaps we expected too much. Scratch the “perhaps” and replace with undoubtedly. Mea culpa too.
Watching the game back on TV having attended it reinforced the point. Munster actually started with plenty of ambition and variety, but imagine the roars which would have greeted JJ Hanrahan’s penalty and which would have accompanied Munster’s pressure before culminating in a crescendo when Tadhg Beirne was helped over the line by Peter O’Mahony and Gavin Coombes.
Wave of noise
Confirmation of the score after Andrew Brace went to the TMO would have led to another, collective roar from the vast majority of a 26,100 capacity crowd. The Munster players would then have surfed that wave of noise.
The same would have been true when Leinster forced their way back into the game. The blue flags would have fluttered more among the knots of away supporters, who in turn would have become more audible. Johnny Sexton, sporting his new, decidedly lockdown haircut, was no longer the Thomond pantomime villain. Crowds are a match’s beating heart. They are a game’s soundtrack. Close your eyes and you can tell which way the psychological energy is ebbing and flowing. Not anymore.
All the many and varied sounds are missed. Like the buzz of anticipation, or hum of fear, when a player with X factor like Garry Ringrose or Jordan Larmour are on the ball
The absence of supporters is perhaps even more keenly felt in the scoreless spells of matches, such as the initial half-hour of the second half. For sure Munster’s attack narrowed up, but the lack of noise from the stands made the stalemate even staler than it was.
The defensive victories which both sides enjoyed were celebrated loudly by the players and their friends on the sidelines, but had their supporters been there to join in, the energy burst would have been even more charged.
Those so-called mini victories would have been amplified into something more meaningful, for the TV viewers at home as well. But without the roar of fans those mini wins seemed hollow.
It’s the same with moments of individual good play or missed chances. Imagine the roar last Saturday whenever Gavin Coombes, who would by now be the new West Cork darling of Thomond Park, charged with the ball in hand. Or when Shane Daly and Mike Haley made those huge touchfinders. The home crowd would then have implored their team to prevent Leinster completing the routine exits which followed.
All the many and varied sounds are missed. Like the buzz of anticipation, or hum of fear, when a player with X factor like Garry Ringrose or Jordan Larmour are on the ball.
Even the mistakes or misses aren’t amplified by those distinctive groans of anguish. It’s akin to a ball whistling past the post in football or tipped around the corner by a diving goalkeeper. No roar, no big deal.
So it is that matches in this new abnormal are now more dependent on scores for the entertainment of the audience, which is now entirely at home and watching on TV. In the same way that a 3-2 now cuts it way better than a 1-0 in football, the same is true of a 27-25 over a 13-10 in rugby. The more scores the better.
Even then, scores seem more isolated in the moment when there is no crowd. Leinster’s match-winning try was a beautifully conceived and executed score, albeit off a crooked throw. Perfectly timed runs and passes, decoy runners and a flourish of brilliance from Ross Byrne’s grubber, Hugo Keenan’s gather and offload, and Jordan Larmour’s flashing finish.
The effects would have reverberated for minutes afterwards, and not just because it would have been replayed on the big screen two or three times. The roar from the away fans would also have been echoed by Byrne’s superb conversion. The angered response from the home crowd would have demanded one from the home team. Instead, it was distilled in the moment, with nothing like the same ripple effect.
Then again, maybe the hollering from the home crowd over the crooked throw would have forced Andrew Brace or one of his assistants to make that call. Here again, crowds beseeching the officials is an essential part of the pageantry – another major factor in diluting home advantage. Darn it, and apologies to officials, even booing is missed.
As an aside, take your eyes off the action from the vantage point of the press box toward the keyboard and it’s quite easy to miss something. It’s the sudden increased noise levels that alert you something significant may be about to happen, or has happened. Nor, in the current spectator-free stadia, are there big screens showing replays.
In the heel of the hunt, without supporters, matches are upgraded training sessions, and that’s all they can ever be.
Arguably, no game this season has missed a full house more than last Saturday’s derby in Limerick. But the bad news is that no tournament will miss them more than the Six Nations, where the riotous mix of home and away fans is its very essence.
It’ll still be better than nothing. But maybe crowds made the spectacle seem better than it really was, and the absence of them now makes it worse than it was. Actually, there’s no maybe about it.