The RFU hopes to improve the vibe at Twickenham.Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
An unchanged line-up, for England, does not mean settling for the status quo this weekend. Across the board, from players to casual fans, it is accepted that the atmosphere at Twickenham needs to change – and soon. The last time the national team played at home, against Fiji in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup, the rows of empty seats were all told even before England lost the actual game.
The Six Nations are always a slightly different beast, with the choirs from Wales on hand to give the away anthem an extra passionate edge. But when the Guardian reported last month that new England captain Jamie George and his players had submitted a number of proposals to the Rugby Football Union to try to improve the vibe in and around the stadium on days major international, social media was not slow to praise. many areas that could, or should, be addressed.
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“The ticket prices and getting in and out of the stadium need to be fixed.” “Over the last two years Twickenham has turned into a pissheads paradise.” “Stop kicking the ball.” There is clearly no immediate one-size-fits-all solution – perhaps the RFU declined to make any of its administrators available for comment on Thursday – but the first steps are being taken towards something more aggressive.
Some will be in and out of sight, others more obvious and comprehensive. As requested, the team will be taking a slightly longer ‘fan walk’ through the West car park to the dressing rooms before the game, although the logistics are more difficult than expected. “It has been extended – which I’m very happy about – but there are some security issues,” George reported. “We can’t go straight back to the gate because I think the boardings are up so we’d be walking past anybody … that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Also inside the dressing room, the players will already have their new cap names on the honors board and more personal messages on their pegs. “We’ve done a few bits around the dressing room and I think it’s going to make things feel a lot more special,” said George, genuinely determined to play his part in improving the experience for everyone. “I’ve been very vocal – as have the boys – about the fact that we want Twickenham to feel different. We fed [some ideas] back to the powers that be and some of them have taken it into account which is great.”
There will also be no shortage of emotions if you enter the stadium bowl. England’s mascots will be four-year-old Billy Thompson, who has been diagnosed with a brain tumour, and his six-year-old sister, Maddie. Their father Jamie is a player and coach at Effingham and Leatherhead RFC and will have a mixed feeling in the rugby community. This will be followed by a moment of applause for, among others, Welsh legends Barry John, JPR Williams and England’s Mike Weston, another heartfelt moment that requires no artificial PA enhancement.
It’s moments like these, according to George, that elevate Test match days to another level. “It is a great privilege for us to be able to put a smile on someone’s face. Walking into that wall of noise – these are things we spoke to the RFU about. It won’t be the finished product on Saturday [but] we will try to see what went well and what did not. As players we will reflect on it, go back to the RFU and see if we can build on that and add to the experience.”
On that note, it’s probably worth mentioning that mass baking at Twickenham is not an entirely recent phenomenon. Old timers reckon it was first heard in the 1957-58 season when Australia’s Jim Lenehan slid his knee first into England’s Peter Thompson, who was already flattened by a tackle, and was subsequently booed when he touched the ball. “It was shocking that even old campaigners couldn’t remember Twickenham before,” wrote Denys Rowbotham, the Guardian correspondent of the day.
On the other hand, as Harlequins proved with their annual Big Game on a magnificent stage, Twickenham can pack a completely different punch. Quins’ innovative chief executive, Laurie Dalrymple, stresses that international games traditionally attract a diverse clientele but still believes England’s games could be transformed. “Obviously something has to change,” says Dalrymple, referring to England’s recent strained relationship with their day patrons.
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“I can’t comment on the culture of the RFU but at Quins we decided to be bold, innovative and fearless of failure. There’s no doubt about it… the price point is key. I get the profitability argument for Twickenham’s major internationals but would they be willing to suddenly make some of their ticket base more accessible and affordable? I think there is definitely a need to be willing to accept a new audience. For example, I bet there is a high crossover between people who go to both the Welsh and Irish games.”
Top musical acts, light shows, fireworks… Dalrymple reiterates, the modern fan experience is not just about rugby. “Winning helps a lot, along with having an identity, but you also have to give fans an edge-of-your-seat experience. Ultimately that will change the dynamic of who comes through the door.” In the end, however, George knows exactly where the buck stops. “If we want to create an intimidating environment at Twickenham, first and foremost we have to be physical, confrontational and aggressive. Ultimately, as players, we have a responsibility to put on a performance that people are proud of. And if we do that … that’s the kind of environment we want to have at Twickenham.” Starting, in theory, on Saturday.