Following a superb 45-0 away victory over Edinburgh at Murrayfield, Saracens are scheduled to play their first home Heineken Cup tie of the season in Brussels this weekend, against Parisian giants Racing Metro. Three years ago, Stade Francais and Ulster were due to play a European Cup group match at Belgium’s same national stadium, Stade Roi Baudouin, but after a heavy night’s snowfall it was postponed hours before kick-off and played the next day back in Paris. But an autumn fixture poses no such concerns and both Saracens and rugby in Belgium stand to benefit from their joint venture.
Why in Brussels? Of any developing rugby nation, Belgium logistically provides the best location for officials and supporters to travel from London or Paris. But staging a rugby match in a small rugby power is potentially risky and for the event to be a success it requires significant local support to help with promotion, ticket sales and other marketing initiatives.
In Belgium’s case this has not been too difficult. The mayor of Brussels, Freddy Thielemans, is a huge rugby fan (he used to play for the oldest expat Belgium club side, the Brussels Barbarians, and played for the national side), and has provided unreserved support, weighing in heavily to publicise the fixture. But Belgium has many rugby enthusiasts and the sport is growing each year in the capital of Europe.
In the last fifteen years the number of registered players in junior, adult and both male and female rugby has more than doubled to well over 10,000. The men’s national side are currently ranked 23rd in the current IRB World Rankings (remember the Rugby World Cup is contested between 20 teams) and in 2013 they will compete in the Euro Nations Cup for the first time, widely recognised as the Six Nations ‘B’ tournament, against teams that have all competed at Rugby World Cups – Russia, Spain, Romania and Georgia.
This will not be the first time that famous rugby teams have played rugby at Belgium’s national stadium. In 2007, Argentina based themselves near Brussels for a week before their successful Rugby World Cup campaign. Their preparations finished with a 36-8 victory against a spirited Belgium Select XV, which included a few aging ex France internationals (such as Yann Delaigue and Emile Ntamack’s brother, Francis) as well as current French international prop Vincent Debaty (who was born in Belgium). Many of the remaining Belgian side were players based in France’s second, third and fourth tiers but the majority played for clubs in the top Belgian league.
A year later a touring Barbarians side, which included World Cup winners Ian Balshaw and Stephen Larkham and former Lions captain Gareth Thomas, faced an inexperienced Belgium line up and ran riot in an 84-10 victory. Clearly the free flowing and risk taking nature of Barbarians rugby is not the ideal test for rugby players from emerging nations but few would argue against other developing rugby nations organising a similar fixture, against one of Rugby’s oldest and well known brands, in the future to boost the sport’s profile.
Saracens have worked hard in and around the Brussels area to market the game and have run several coaching camps for local Belgian clubs and schoolchildren. At the beginning of October, their community coach Lewis Sones and star flanker Jacques Burger, the Namibian captain at the 2011 Rugby World Cup (a country who are only one place above Belgium in the latest World Rankings), headed over to Brussels for the most recent of these clinics.
In September, England winger Chris Ashton and the South African 2007 Rugby World Cup winning captain John Smit were chosen by the club to appear at a press conference in Brussels promoting the game, which was attended by many journalists from the UK, France and Belgium.
A source from the Belgium Rugby Board is hoping for a crowd in the region of 30,000 supporters (capacity is 50,000) – a realistic target as this is the same number of tickets that were sold for the Stade Francais v Ulster clash. 10,000 tickets had already been snapped up at the end of September and the game will appear live on Sky Sports (in the UK and Eire) and France 2 (in France and Belgium).
The match is perhaps risky for Saracens as they are desperate for Heineken Cup success but they are giving up home advantage against Racing, who fittingly have a Belgium international (Jens Torfs) in their squad this season. But their commercial initiatives off the field are unrivalled in the Aviva Premiership and they stand to increase their already diverse supporter base in another market. Their Belgian adventure is a risk well worth taking.
Did you know?
The current President of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, is a former Belgian rugby international.
This article also appears on Alastair’s blog at http://amprugby.blogspot.co.uk/