Since the England squad assembled for the first time in early January, along with new captain Jamie George, there has been a strong focus on reconnecting with fans and improving the Twickenham matchday experience.
George has spoken passionately about his desire to ‘make Twickenham great again’, revealing that the team had brainstormed ahead of their first home game since England’s World Cup nightmare against Fiji in the month of August. The proposals focused on making changes to Twickenham’s matchday routine, including extending the players’ walk into the stadium upon arrival and playing more music during play breaks. On Saturday, England fans saw the first impact of these suggestions on the matchday experience.
The first and most obvious change was the expanded walk-in, with the bus stopping about halfway up the stadium drive to give fans better exposure to the players. Despite the presence of many event planners (slightly pressured) the players had a great time walking from the bus and this helped build the atmosphere around the ground as kick-off approached. In addition, the stewards narrowed the path allowing fans to get close to the players and even have the odd high-five.
England’s recent home record has been below par, with the team winning just five of their last 13 matches at Twickenham. Worse still, Warren Gatland’s striking statement earlier in the week that Twickenham is “not at all intimidated” shows that England need to restore their home advantage. To the question that many fans will ask; if england can’t win at home, where will they be?
The atmosphere at Twickenham is strange and can quickly change from quietly booming – Saturday’s encounter provided plenty of examples of this. The songs were hair-raising, and the first 10 minutes of the game really pumped up the stadium. But England failed to convert their chances, and as they booed, so did the crowd. Both tries from Wales galvanized the home support, with only Ollie Chessum’s yellow card met with a furious response, echoed by applause around the ground. Conversely, England’s second-half defense, which consisted of a huge defensive effort and more expansive play, got the fans back in full voice despite a nervy final 10 minutes.
Many have pointed to the success of Harlequins’ annual ‘Big Game’ as a blueprint for reaching HQ and bringing in a new generation of England fans. However, even when a full DJ set is attracted before the start and the popular pyrotechnics show. , the reason the stadium is packed and the atmosphere is great is the rugby on display. We have actually seen this during the match against New Zealand in 2022. Although the light show and fireworks were a great way to get the fans excited, the stadium was immediately silent for three minutes in an interception Dalton Papalii. It was when England decided to turn it on in those last 10 minutes that the crowd came back to life.
There were a few other changes during the game, with more music playing at breaks and the use of graphics to try and give fans a better understanding of the state of play. The increased frequency of the music was great – especially when the crowd of almost 82,000 were belting out numbers like Hey Jude and Wonderwall, which provided a good way to highlight the endless scrum rearrangements and on TMO referrals.
The graphics were… interesting. While it was somewhat informative to see scrum and lineout success rates in the middle of the game, perhaps the statistics were more suited to half-time and full-time to give fans a chance to fully take these in. the end of the game. While players in the past tended to go into the dressing room rather quickly, some stuck around long after the final whistle to sign autographs, take selfies and mingle with the fans.
While all of these can be considered positive changes to the overall experience of the day, the biggest contributing factor was the fan I was sitting next to: “victory”. It’s hard to argue with him.
So while the tweaks made to Saturday’s game may not have made it an easier game for England, it is encouraging to see the team taking visible actions to improve their relationship with the fans and the overall day experience. But for all of this to have the impact they hope for, England need to fortify Twickenham, for fans and players alike.