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South African Pro14 attendances far better than criticism suggests

Almost 14,000 that watched Zebre clash more than doubles record first home crowd

Leinster’s Jack Conan on the attack against the Southern Kings at a sparsely populated Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Photograph: Ryan Wilkisky/Inpho

This column is predicated on information that could be classified under the term “white lies” in terms of offering a skewed perspective on the subject matter of attendances at rugby matches or perhaps it would be more appropriate to suggest that the figures doled out be considered, gentle misdirection.

The media is partially culpable in the charade. There is a significant discrepancy between ticket sales and attendance when it comes to the reporting of official crowd sizes in the Guinness Pro14. However, that does not preclude season ticket sales being included in attendance figures for a match, even when it is patently obvious that there are not that many spectators there.

Perhaps the clarification needs to come from the media in reporting the attendance figure announced over the PA system at some grounds as ticket sales. For example, given the television pictures and photographic evidence from the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium, there is a strong argument to suggest that the official attendance of 3,011 included the Southern Kings and Leinster teams, their respective managements and the stewards.

The two South African teams, the Kings and the Cheetahs, were castigated for modest attendances at their first ever home games in the newly and in fairness hastily constituted tournament. It is a legitimate criticism in terms of the Kings but the 13,982 that turned up for the Cheetahs win over Zebre is the largest debut attendance of any team that has ever played in the various incarnations of the competition.

Since the tournament began in the 2001-2002 season, the previous record was held by Newport (6,260) who beat Caerphilly 50-22 at Rodney Parade in August, 2001. It is interesting to note that when Newport was expanded to the Newport Gwent Dragons two seasons later, the latter franchise’s first match only managed to attract a crowd of 3,874.

It was a similar scenario with Neath whose first game in the tournament saw 5,000 spectators turn up at The Gnoll, 750 more than rocked up to the first game in 2003 of the newly amalgamated Neath-Swansea Ospreys as they were then known.

Almost 14,000 people attended the Cheetahs first home Pro14 match against Zebre in Bloemfontein. Photograph: Frikkie Kapp/Inpho

Both Llanelli and Cardiff merely changed their names – to the Scarlets and the Blues eventually – rather than combining with neighbours. The 2001 version of team attracted more supporters to their first game at the Cardiff Arms Park than the Blues did in 2003; the reverse was the case for Llanelli and the Scarlets.

The Welsh rugby union nominated a fifth franchise in 2003, the Celtic Warriors, a short-lived marriage of Pontypridd and Bridgend, albeit that the composite side managed to get 4,500 people into Sardis Road for the opening match in September, 2003.

Irish perspective

From an Irish perspective Munster’s first home match in the tournament took place at Thomond Park against provincial rivals Connacht in August 2001 when the official attendance was listed at 6,000. To provide some perspective, Munster’s two home matches this season against Benetton Treviso at Musgrave Park and the Cheetahs at Thomond Park saw 7,854 and 15,144 respectively listed as the official attendances.

Leinster played their first ever home match against Glasgow in Donnybrook and 4,500 spectators turned up to watch, considerably less than the 13,535 that attended this season’s victory over the Cardiff Blues at the RDS. Ulster and Connacht both reflect a similar pattern.

Ulster drew a crowd of 6,000 to Ravenhill to watch them beat Swansea (2001) while 14,448 were at the opening match of this season against the Cheetahs at the Kingspan Stadium. Just 1,800 attended the Sportsground for a 30-21 defeat to Edinburgh in 2001 as opposed to the 5,174 who turned up to watch Kieran Keane’s side a few weeks ago.

Of the Italian clubs, 4,400 went to Aironi’s first game in 2010, more than the 2,025 that attended their replacements, Zebre’s, first match in 2012. What will be dispiriting for Benetton Treviso is that the 5,000 spectators that watched them play their first home league game in 2010 is nearly double the 2,600 that turned up to see them lose 21-14 to Ulster at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo earlier this month. Hopefully their upturn in recent form will persuade the locals that they are worth supporting.

You can argue the toss about different eras and different stages in the evolution of professional rugby when drawing comparisons in crowd terms. You can even argue that the Cheetahs gave away a hefty chunk of free tickets for the match against Zebre but the fact remains they lead the way in terms of getting the crowd out for their first game.