After going to more than 30 soccer matches during my stay in England I decided to try a different English sporting experience a week and a half ago when I went to see a rugby match to see how the two atmospheres compare with each another. I found that, very surprisingly, the two experiences could not have been more different.
The match I went to was between London Saracens (one of two London teams in the Rugby Premiership) and Exeter Chiefs. The match was very crucial to was very important in determining who would get the fourth and final playoff spot (Premiership Rugby has American style playoffs at the end of the season) as there were only two games left in the season and Saracens led Exeter by four points (which is equal to the number of points awarded for a victory in Rugby Union).
Saracens play in 10,000-seat stadium Allianz Park in the North London borough of Barnet. Allianz Park is located in the middle of a huge athletic complex, which contains many football pitches, swimming pools and is a community oriented complex. This was a far cry from all the football stadiums in London that I have been to (besides The Hive) that were wedged into tight residential neighborhoods with almost no opportunity to expand. The playing pitch was artificial turf and was surrounded by an athletics track (used by Shaftsbury Barnet Harriers during the weekdays), two things that would never even be considered to be allowed at an English soccer ground (hence the initial outrage at the proposed athletics track surrounding the pitch at the Olympic Park when West Ham United move in).
Saracens only started playing home matches at Allianz Park in 2013 and had previously played home matches at Vicarage Road, the home of Watford F.C. If this move had taken place in soccer, there would have been mass protests from the fans as teams are rooted in their identity of their local London neighborhood (see the protests when Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes). Not so in rugby, as many live a nomadic lifestyle and are not tied to any locale. There are many teams in the top two divisions in Rugby that have the name “London” attached to them but actually play well outside of London. London Welsh play in Oxford, London Wasps play in Coventry and London Irish play in Reading. The moving of teams has a very “American” feel to it, and that would symbolize my whole visit to Allianz Park
After taking the Northern line to Mill Hill East, I got on a free shuttle bus put on by Saracens to the ground. Listening to some of the fans talk amongst themselves on the bus, you would have had no idea that this match was one of the most important of the season, or even that there was a match at all. Many conversations were about the family or work or the upcoming Liverpool against Chelsea match. We were eventually let off the bus and I followed the horde of people through the athletics complex and towards the stadium. After buying my ticket (the match was not sold out) I walked in and it really sank in how different this was to soccer. The main difference was that there were trucks selling alcohol right next to the pitch. In soccer, alcohol is not permitted within sight of the pitch and all of the drinking takes place either in nearby pubs or on the concourse underneath the stands. There was also much more space around the stadium, behind one of the in-goal areas (rugby term for end zone) there were fans sitting and enjoying picnics and just milling about soaking in a rare sunny Sunday afternoon. Dads were holding kids hands and showing them around and there was not nearly as much team apparel as football (or American sports) matches. Also, unlike soccer there was zero police presence at the stadium
Because I do not understand the sport of rugby very well, it would be impossible to go through the major details and nuances of the match, but Exeter went ahead on an early penalty kick and then the two teams traded tries before Saracens tied it 17-17 on a penalty kick right before halftime. In the second half, Saracens went ahead 20-17 on a penalty kick and the playoff spot seemed to be in hand before Exeter scored a try to pull ahead 24-20. The last five minutes Saracens were inside 10 meters of Exeter’s in-goal area but could not get the ball across the line and Exeter barely held out for a 24-20 victory.
I made the mistake of buying the cheapest possible ticket for the match, which meant that I was sitting at field level five meters away from the actual field (about lane five on the surrounding track) in the corner. This would not have been a big issue but many fans who wanted to get a better view of the match decided to stand right on the perimeter of the pitch in my line of sight. In soccer, this would have led to a fight but here the “Pioneers” (Saracens volunteer security officials) politely asked them to move, which they did. Also, it seemed that every five seconds someone would get up and walk in front of me to go buy another beer during play. A youth rugby team was sitting in my section and they were constantly chasing each other around and eventually sat down next to the field so as not to obstruct my (as well as other fans in my area) view.
The fans also did not seem as emotionally invested as they are in football. Many times throughout the match I asked the people around me what had just happened (usually after a penalty was called) and more often than not they had less of a clue than I did. The fans seemed very disinterested in what was actually happening out on the field until the last five minutes when Saracens were within five meters of winning the match. Then the fans started urging the team on but it was to no avail as Exeter held out with a goal line stand that would have made Bill Bellichick proud.
However, the main difference between rugby and football was the lack of segregated seating. Exeter fans sat amongst the Saracens fans and were often cheering on their team as if nothing was wrong. Towards the midfield line there was a group of about thirty Exeter fans seated together who would always sing the Atlanta Braves tomahawk chant whenever their team did something good. Besides that, there was almost no singing or chanting besides the odd “Sara, Sara, Sara” from small pockets of the home fans. The two sets of fans mingled peacefully and were actually very friendly with one another.
Despite this being a very important match that led to Exeter temporarily leapfrogging Saracens in the table, the fans were still invited out onto the pitch after the game to meet the players as it was the last home game. Despite being rather upset that they lost, every single player came back out onto the pitch after the match to sign autographs for any fan who wanted it. Meanwhile, little kids were seen all over the pitch kicking rugby balls through the uprights, passing the balls amongst themselves and just having a good time. Underneath the main stand, a live band played for the celebrating Exeter fans. You could easily have mistaken the post match scenes for a carnival and not a high stakes professional rugby match. The fans were allowed to stay for as long as they wanted afterwards and many stayed well over an hour just playing on the Allianz Park turf.
It is quite remarkable that two sports that originated in the same country could have such different fan bases and support and matchday atmosphere. Traditionally, football has been more a working class sport while rugby has been middle class (and cricket upper class) but due to an increase in ticket prices soccer has started to move away from its working class roots. Rugby caters more to families wanting to have a fun day out while football is more for ones who want to see tension, drama and nail biting action on the field. The rugby fans were much better behaved but at the same time had very little interest in the result. It is really surprising in fact that the sport that is much more physical and violent on the field is actually much more relaxed off of it. Despite the major differences from the sport I have come to love, I still had an enjoyable day out at Allianz Park and I would definitely recommend it to people visiting London that either have kids or just want to experience something completely different.
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