This year I am going to my 10th Heineken Cup Final, and now in my humble opinion the event is more exciting than the 6 Nations Championship, because the real sense of competition is there. I started going to HQ (Twickenham) properly in the mid 90's to watch the 6 Nations just before the emergence of the great English team that straddled the turn of the century. Tickets then were like gold dust, only available through clubs, and the North Stand towered over the South providing panaramic views towards London.
Twickenham was an occasion. We always used to start in the Orange Tree in Richmond, a slightly sordid and run down pub opposite Richmond station. There were benches all round the edge of the room, which provided a chance to stand on the seats to watch the giant screen, or find your mates in the crowd. The odd celebrity could be spotted in there, but the majority of ex-players went round the corner to the Sun Inn. Jason Leonard can be regularly spotted in there - he's now as wide as he is tall, but always has a word for anyone who wants a photo or an autograph. It's also a Fuller's Real Ale pub. None of the fancy nightclub Chinawhites for players in those days. That could be a separate rant. It may be if talented players like Danny Cipriani believe in their own celebrity.
The other good thing about the 6 Nations then was the 2.30pm start on Saturday for all games. An early doors arrival at The Orange Tree was always exciting, standing outside, watching the crowds build up and the mighty Concorde fly over around 11.30am. Friends that hadn't seen each other for a year, often supporting the opposition, caught up with news, and shared their thoughts on the game.
There was always the 2pm dash, as we finished off the last pint of Guinness before the game and 'speed-wallked down to the ground' to get in just in time for the anthems. The walk was 20 minutes, so it was all in the timing. One year we hitched a lift in a mini-bus, another in a taxi. Only once did we miss the start of the game. It was against the French when we got to our seats to see the first attack of the game. At that time the Corporates were just beginning to get seats, and so to celebrate the fact, I asked AJP 'Which team were England?' AJP replied 'I think they are the white shirts'. We thought it was funny, but the looks of disgust around us meant that others didn't think the same.
At that time, the West Car Park was full of ex-internationals, player's friends and family, and celebrities, and a car park space was much prized. These were to the right as you went through the gates, and the plebs who could afford the car park fees went to the left. It's no wonder Land Rover sponsor England Rugby, as half that year's output of Brown's Lane was parked up there. One year we went down in a battered mini-bus with a picnic, prepared as homework from a teacher's Home Economics Class, and a few tinnies. As we pulled into the gate, the Security Guard asked the club stalwart at the front, 'Are you Committee?'
'Yes', he replied.
'Well turn to the right please sir.'
Under his breath the stalwart whispered, 'Well, I'm on Burton's Committee', and so we parked up next to Mike Burton and Bill Beaumont, and in front of the orange Judith Chalmers. We weren't late for kick off that year, and had the opportunity to get many autographs as the players came out to meet family after the game.
Sometimes we just used to meet up with the Burton crowd after the game for food before we hit the high life of Richmond. On Will Greenwood's debut, we saw him come out and meet his girlfriend who'd come down to watch in a battered Corsa. Later that night he was spotted legless in Richmond. AJP always claims that she won the 2003 World Cup for England, as that day she stopped Will getting runover, as he stepped out into on-coming traffic. Without his try against Wales, we may have gone out in the quarter finals, as that provided the momentum to close out the game. Yes we scored less tries than the Welsh, but as they kept stopping our attacks with penalties, then the only way we are going to be able to score, is through penalties.
It all became too easy though. We were putting 40 points on the Celts regularly at home, and in the end against the French as well. Twickenham became a fortress, but somehow some of the expectation was sucked out of the occasion, it wasn't a case of I hope England win, but by how many. It was only poor execution away from home that stopped 4 Grand Slams on the trot - something that the Celts see as a triumph?? In 1999 for instance, Wales played with two players ineligible to play, unless Wigan has moved west, and a highly dubious penalty leading to the winning try sealed the thrashing 32-31. No sour grapes there then K.
After the World Cup win, the 6 Nations was lost to the true supporter, as everyone wanted tickets, and the Corporates increasingly took over. In the game against Ireland in 2004, I had brilliant tickets in the East Stand on the halfway line. However I didn't see much of the game, as a constant stream of people stood up to fetch more champers, prawn sandwiches, or to use the facilites. In the end I had to tell them. 'I paid £85 to watch a game of rugby, not your backsides'. I suppose some of my frustration was also at the performance on the pitch. The team were resting on their laurels, basking in their own glory after the win, and Ireland sensed it and went for the jugular.
Soon after Woodward left, key players retired and the next generation never ever really stepped up. Poor selection decisions, old fashioned game plans (space not face, please) meant that England fell behind the top 3 from the Southern Hemisphere, and in fact Ireland and France, and probably still remain there now.
The West Car Park is now just that. A hotel car park. Players are dragged in for short after match meetings with sponsors. There is a Fan Zone selling over-priced food and beer, and The Orange Tree is now a Gastro-pub, with the Chairs and Tables removed for match day. The pre-match atmosphere has gone now, and the kick and bosh tactics of England is antiquated to say the least. English Premiership teams don't play that style, unless forced to by game situations, and so there is a mis-match in styles between club and country. The day feels too samey.
The Heineken Cup has had five different winners in that time, and another 4 teams as losing finalists. The combinations of teams are unknown until two weeks before the Final, the Finals are played in different cities, with differing rugby cultures. The tribalism is still there, and there is a real sense of pre-match excitement.
Fields of Gold - Sting - because once HQ felt like that.