Emerging Belgium – ideal location for Saracens’ next adventure

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.

Chris Ashton

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.

By Alastair Pickering

This article also appears on Alastair’s blog at http://amprugby.blogspot.co.uk/

17 thoughts on “Emerging Belgium – ideal location for Saracens’ next adventure

  1. Great article, good for rugby that they’re organising these kind of fixtures.

    Any of the all conquering BSB juniors team from 2002 playing?

  2. The whole notion of taking fixtures to different countries is an interesting debate. Some people like the idea, whilst others seem to hate it.

    Edinburgh were invited to play against Saracens in Cape Town, but declined the offer – and that was met with widespread glee from fans.

    But then when you look at this fixture in Belgium, or the LV Cup match in Abu Dhabi a couple of years ago, the idea of growing the sport in different regions is very much supported.

    I’m actually all for the idea, and love the fact that Saracens are being creative in where they play their ‘home’ games whilst they are pretty much homeless until February. But then I’m not a season-ticket holder and don’t get deprived of a home game to watch…

    1. I was really looking forward to Sarries Vs Munster which was supposed to take place in NYC or Boston this year. With all the Irish living over in the US and Canada these days it would’ve felt like an extra ‘home’ game for Munster! Hell, I was willing to make the 8 hour drive from Toronto to NYC

    2. It is the fans I feel sorry for. Heineken Cup home games are the most attractive games in any season and to move them to another country seems ill advised. Should they not be trying to attract new fans to help fill there new stadium regularly. I have no problem with clubs moving games to bigger stadiums to take fianacial advantage though you do need to consider the distance you move the game.

      1. I don’t know how you can say that, Rua. Saracen’s new stadium isn’t up and running yet and Watford is such a dump they’d never fill that.

        The experiment was to promote Saracens as a team outside of the UK, attract new fans to rugby in Belgium and provide a good enough package for Saracens fans so they don’t miss out. I’d say mission accomplished on all fronts.

        £99 for a return ticket and a seat on the halfway line. Hardly giving the fans two fingers.

        At the end of the day look at the fans outside of the usual H-Cup countries: America, Belgium and Holland for example. All three are desperate to see H-Cup rugby so if its feasible then why not give it a shot?

  3. Being Belgian myself, i’m absolutely stoked for this game! We’re going to watch it with our entire rugby club, and for most of us this will be the first high level game we will ever see.

    I believe that initiatives like this can bring rugby to a bigger crowd in belgium, and sincerely hope more of these will find their way to our tiny country!

    1. Tell us how it was watching it! Great to hear from someone who’s actually benefiting from this As well as all the outside views.

  4. A very well written article, really enjoyed reading that!

    I’m glad to see rugby breaking into new territories, especially within Europe, and applaud Saracens for their efforts to do so.

    I’m not sure how their fans feel about not having a home at the moment but the fact that it is only for the short term, and with a promising stadium planned, can’t be too bad.

    I’m one of the many expats that live on the continent in a country not known for their rugby prowess and remember the reaction when Bourgoin played Munster in Geneva a few years ago. It sparked some interest at the time, but it will only be through continued efforts that a consistent change will occur. The passion is definitely there, it just needs the resources to spur it on, and ventures such as this one help do that. It would be great to see more of it, as long as it isn’t at the expense of the fans too much!

  5. It is a commercial decision for Sarries at the end of the day. If they didn’t think that it was going to make them more money (in the long run) than lost ticket sales (in the short term) then they wouldn’t do it.

    I’m actually pleased for Belgium and the supporters there but don’t heap praise on Sarries for making a commercial rather than an altruistic one.

  6. At the end of the day Saracens have marketed the game in Belgium hard….towards home fans in the UK! About 2,000 home fans have snapped up ticket packages including return Eurostar travel and have given advice to other fans wishing to travel.

    The decision at the end of the day is a commercial exactly because its an exercise in altruism. Its a classic google move: stimulate the market to create demand and then reap the rewards. Just as Google provide lots of free services (email, maps, time-out style bar & restaurant directory listings) they encourage people to surf the web more and thus make more money from advertising.

    Sarries are doing something similar: hold rugby games in new territories and invest in bringing up quality in local rugby in those territories and then reap the rewards with new overseas fans. Thats why they wanted a game at Meadowlands in New Jerse- I mean NYC and are having a game in Belgium this weekend :)

  7. Dont forget the rugby enthusiasts from the Netherlands! It’s close enough and Ill bet that me and my dad wont be the only Dutch attending this match. It’s a great oppertunity to see some quality rugby and Brussels is just a couple of hours away from most of the big cities of NL.

    Hats off for the Sarries for doing this. I’m one grateful rugby fan! :)

  8. it was a fun game, although there were loads and loads of knock-ons, thats the sole criticism i have about the game

    we’ve got some work to do in terms of atmosphere, and the pitch is pretty far from the stands, but apart from that, it was a very special experience, and i do hope that brussels may become a household name for nomadic teams!! i highly appreciate the initiative, and i do believe it brings a lot of support for rugby to our tiny country

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