England’s players have been brainstorming fresh ways to reconnect with their supporters during this year’s Six Nations championship, including modernising the Twickenham matchday experience in a bid to attract a more diverse audience. More music during breaks in play and better fan engagement are among several proposals from the squad with the aim of changing the vibe around the English team.
Despite reaching the World Cup semi-finals, England were booed at times in France and the turbulent tenure of Eddie Jones, risk-averse gameplans and high ticket prices have all tested the fans’ relationship with the national side. England’s new captain, Jamie George, has now revealed his squad have submitted a range of suggestions to the Rugby Football Union with a view to transforming the Twickers atmosphere.
Winning a few more games, starting with Saturday’s Six Nations opener versus Italy in Rome, would clearly help but George and his team feel their on-field performance can also be enhanced by a more upbeat stadium mood. Twickenham, traditionally perceived as the spiritual home of waxed jackets and red trousers, may be about to Dad-dance to a very different beat.
Anyone who has attended Harlequins’ annual ‘Big Game’ will know Twickenham can be a spectacularly thunderous venue. With that scenario in mind, an upgraded play-list and more musical interludes are likely when Wales visit south-west London on Saturday week. George is not entirely convinced by his teammate Danny Care’s desire to introduce a Kiss-Cam but is pushing for the players’ walk from the team bus to the stadium to be lengthened further into the West carpark.
“For me that is one of the best moments as an England rugby player, getting off the bus and being hit with a wall of noise,” George said. “If I was a kid stood by the gate and I just see the bus go by, that’s a different experience to the bus stopping in front of you and you get to see Maro Itoje, Marcus Smith, Danny Care and – er – Dan Cole walk past you. We are having ongoing discussions about how we can engage with fans more.
“We’ve also had what you’d call commercial conversations around the matchday experience. How we want it to look, how we want it to feel. That’s never happened since I have been in the England squad. It might not be perfect come the Wales game but there are certainly good ideas that have been fed up to the RFU from the players that we think will make a difference.”
George, whose good friend Owen Farrell was the target of booing from the stands at times during the World Cup, says all involved recognise there is room for improvement, with the players also looking to help market the game better. “It’s something the team and everyone at the RFU cares about,” the captain insisted. “We are very aware that English rugby has a lot of work to do. If we’re completely honest, English rugby hasn’t been in the best place in terms of teams going bust in the Premiership and grassroots numbers falling. We are aware we have an opportunity to reach as many people across England as we can and change perceptions.”
The players accept, though, that attracting a more diverse audience to international games is easier said than done unless Twickenham ticket prices are significantly reduced. “We would love to be able to reach more of the English public,” said George. “It’s not for me to say about the ticketing pricing … but reaching the right target audience is important for us as a team.”
He also accepts that a more attractive on-field product is another part of the equation. “The style of play probably had an implication on why there was booing. Ultimately this team will base its game plan on winning games but at the same time conversations are being had around how we get people off their seats. People want to see tries. And the more success we have, the more interest we’ll have in the game across the country.
“I’m not saying what we were doing before was wrong. Steve Borthwick is just very focused on making sure this team always gets better. He now has a huge push on bringing the fans on that journey with us. I’m not necessarily saying you will see drastic changes and we turn into the Harlem Globetrotters. What I am saying is [we want to develop] the ability to manipulate defences.
“Our record at Twickenham, hasn’t been good enough over the last few years but this is a new team. Fundamentally, the DNA of any England team is always going to be the same. Set piece and a strong defence. How we evolve our attack and how we try to beat teams, make line breaks, score tries … that’s what we can get excited about.”