Play-offs are turn-off for fans

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Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, host simultaneous events on Saturday afternoon. Sale and Leicester contest the Guinness Premiership final in south-west London while the Millennium hosts Barnsley and Swansea City in football’s League One play-off final.

One event is the climax of English club rugby’s year, the other of real significance only to the contestants. Yet there will be little differences in the attendances – 58,000 tickets had been sold for the rugby by Thursday afternoon while the two football clubs had sold almost as many between them.

Twickenham’s currently reduced capacity is not a factor – there were still a couple of thousand tickets left. Nor is football’s greater popularity – Sale and Leicester’s combined average gate is 27,350 compared with Swansea and Barnsley’s 23,150. And such an important rugby final should appeal to neutrals as well.

English rugby fans, though, remain highly ambivalent about the end of season play-offs, now in their fourth year. Leicester’s crowd for their semi-final against London Irish was only 14,069, nearly 3,000 below capacity and their lowest Premiership gate for more than 50 matches and four years.

Of course, play-offs are not included in rugby club season tickets. But nor are they for the two football clubs, which pulled in crowds
50 per cent above their average for their semi-finals. Yet the Twickenham contestants are playing for the biggest national prize – the right to call themselves English champions and the benefit, now that the Heineken European Cup has reintroduced seedings, of avoiding the
top teams from other countries at the pool stage next season.

For Sale it would represent the final affirmation of their status among Europe’s leading clubs. They will command most neutral support – in part as a change from the Bath-Wasps-Leicester troika that has dominated rugby for two decades – but also for the simple reason that over 22 matches, from September to May, they proved themselves the best team.

There is a simple cultural difference here. Sport in New Zealand, Australia and the US has always mixed league and play-off, using the regular season as a qualifying competition rather than an end in itself. French rugby does the same. British sport – with the significant exception of rugby league – has separated leagues and cups.

It is argued that play-offs prepare players better for the really big prizes, the internationals, World Cups and Heinekens. Those who argue this most vigorously tend to be New Zealanders, whose ingrained play-off
culture has not stopped a series of mortifying World Cup failures.

Munster, who play in a Celtic League whose destiny was settled in regular season fixtures last night, were not notably handicapped against play-off playing English and French opposition in this year’s run to Heineken Cup victory.

Play-offs co-exist with the Premiership’s dream, reportedly close to fulfilment, of becoming a relegation-free, gated community. Very nice for them, of course, but the casual watcher might be forgiven for asking whether there is any real point to a regular season that decides no championships, promotions nor relegations.

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