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Pints at the Aviva, dinner at Roly’s and the Dart home. Since when has that not been a ‘real’ rugby fan experience?

Watching Ireland play in the Aviva Stadium is and should remain a sporting experience equally open to everyone

In a series of responses to this paper last week regarding questions about the vibe in Aviva Stadium, serious-minded people bemoaned the lack of tickets for Six Nations rugby matches, claimed games were spoiled by “drunken posh boys”, and said the matches lacked atmosphere and tickets were too hard to come by.

The real dig in the solar plexus was that too many of those who did get tickets were not ‘real fans’.

The ‘real fan’ doesn’t appear to want people to buy their drinks during play and expects there to be a better ambience. To ensure that, tickets ought to fall only into the hands of the ‘real fans’.

One respondent also asked the IRFU to “please stop making these events an occasion” and to have the team supported “by actual fans who know the game and want to support the team with every fibre of their being”.

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Intense and heartfelt stuff. You can’t deny people’s experience. But you can disagree with their sentiment or the prescriptive notion of what a ‘real fan’ is and how a ‘real fan’ should behave when they attend an international rugby match. That’s because ‘real fans’ are mythical creatures. ‘Real fans’ don’t exist except as notional figures in people’s heads.

The ‘real fan’ can be the woman that goes to the bar as the players are picking themselves off the grass to realign for a third reset scrum, or, it can be the glowering, urgent fan, who has just missed the ‘engage’ because someone needs beer. There is an annoyance factor, sure, but why all the rage?

Rugby needs all types of ‘real fan’. It needs them because the IRFU makes a pretty penny from keeping the bars open for the duration of Six Nations matches. Those pretty pennies contribute to the wages of the players the ‘real fans’ support with, well, every fibre of their being.

Many tickets go to clubs, and who can claim to be more of a ‘real fan’ than those who play and run rugby around the country? The clubs sell the tickets at a profit to raise money to put back into the sport. It is part of the rugby economy and part of the financial structure in Ireland that goes toward ensuring the quality of the fare for which people pay to come and watch.

That segues on to the responsibility of the ‘real fan’ and the fan-shaming that is currently in vogue. If you start a conversation with the person beside you instead of watching the match you instantly are not a ‘real fan.’ So, when the murmuring begins in the Aviva Stadium, it’s the fault of those who are not ‘real fans’ and not the fault of the act playing on the stage below. The Irish team.

It’s a curious thing that if people get bored and there is no atmosphere in the ground, it becomes the fault of those who bought the tickets and not the fault of the team they have come to watch. It doesn’t work that way with Bruce Springsteen.

There was no fan-shaming going on when Ireland beat the All Blacks 16-9 in 2018 at the Aviva. Nor was there on March 18th last year when Ireland beat England 29-16 to win a Grand Slam – because the fans were all engaged.

You could say that the idea of a ‘real fan’ in rugby is a conceit. It creates a caste system, places one fan on a higher rung than another rather than understanding the myriad of reasons people turn up to support Ireland in the championship, and the convoluted ways by which people come across tickets.

An example would be the man returning with four pints, who got his ticket from a club he sponsors. The club uses the money to buy kit for Sunday morning mini-rugby. Real fan?

Supporting the Irish rugby team and the game itself extends way beyond the pitch and is woven into societal, economic and cultural realities. It is a complex mix of people and motivations. Ticket holders don’t need to understand an illegal bind in the scrum or how to play a drift defence and many of them don’t. The whole notion that the game exists in a rugby vacuum is naive.

But to challenge rugby to define the type of fan for whom it is truly meant and reserve tickets for them alone would be an interesting call. Love to know the answer. A much more reasonable, even responsible, act would be to regularly question the balance the IRFU have between the community who support it and the commercialism that drives it.

The ‘real fans’ are on all sides. The ‘real fans’ are the people with corporate tickets, they are the club players and their partners who come for the emotion and spectacle of the occasion as much as the match.

The ‘real fan’ is not some identikit rugby purist, although they all have a common thread. In different ways they all support the game.

What that means can be a pint or two at a local watering hole before the match, two or three in Aviva during the game and a table booked in Roly’s for after the match. Dart home. Since when has that not been a ‘real fan’ rugby experience?

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