What would happen if the WRU allowed Larry King, Peter Stringfellow and a Smash Hits magazine competition winner to design the pre-match festivities of a 6 nations game at the Millennium Stadium? No need to imagine – it happened last night.
Not so long ago there used to be a choir or two on the pitch before the game, the crowd would work through its repertoire of Welsh rugby songs and the atmosphere would naturally reach a peak during a rousing rendition of Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. Those events which used to encapsulate a unique expression of what it means to be Welsh and support Wales have now been replaced by an anodyne, tacky show more redolent of New Year’s Eve in a seedy nightclub than a representation of the Welsh nation and its connection with their national rugby team.
No doubt a leading marketing agency has got the ear of Roger Lewis and told him “choirs, goats and tradition is so very last year dahlin’. This isn’t a rugby game any more this is an event and to make something an event you need drama, razmatazz and dry ice….lots of dry ice. Now where’s Larry King’s phone number”……
It started with the farcical face off in the tunnel where the stoney faced Welsh replacements stared down the stoic Robshaw and the lively looking Mike Brown. Rather than the start of a prestigious tournament it looked more like a scene from any Yates Wine Lodge across the country at about 11.30pm most Friday nights. With his angry face on all Mike Brown needed was a bottle of Stella, a Stone Island shirt and Cindy from Gloucester on his arm while shouting “who you looking at Paul James” to complete the picture.
Our first thought wasn’t “doesn’t Baldwin look tough”, it was more “they need to kick off soon or everyone will miss their train”.
If the crowd was getting bored they shouldn’t have been because the January 2015 Smash Hits magazine competition winner – Laura Evans aged 13 from Blaina, was already mixing up some of her favourite tunes (or “#toonz”) to keep the viewers entertained. We went through her whole Now 67 back catalogue including Ed Sheeran, Avicii and Lady Gaga (probably).
As the dry ice drifted towards the open roof you could feel 140 years of Welsh rugby tradition going with it. All that was left behind was a venue plunged in to darkness with 70,000 people clinging to pints of beer and taking selfies.
Times change. Supporters used to watch a rugby match to follow their heroes do battle; they were represented for 80 minutes on the pitch by people they used to work and socialise with.
Today, we have consumers who are attending an event which means the product needs to be good. The product isn’t the 80 minutes on the pitch but the whole match day experience. The match day viewer now expects to be entertained.
It is obvious what the WRU are trying to do but there are two implications of the direction they are travelling. Firstly the confrontational stance of both the Welsh set-up during the week (see Gatland and Edwards’ comments) and in the tunnel before the game leads to a lack of respect for the opposition which feeds through to the supporters. Rugby used to pride itself on a respect for the opposition but unfortunately we are heading down the route taken by football some decades ago and we know where that leads.
Secondly, Welsh rugby is on the edge of a crisis with the professional teams not competitive at the top European table, attendances on the slide and fewer people playing the game at the grass roots level. The WRU should be looking to connect with those people in the Welsh rugby community who will contribute to the game from the bottom up rather than chasing a few extra ticket sales in a one-off international game. The “show” put on last night further alienates those people it needs to connect with.
Perhaps the Larry King show of smoke and mirrors was a good metaphor for the state of Welsh rugby. When you stripped away the lasers, music and silly games there wasn’t much of substance left to admire.