What an opening month we’ve had in the Magners League – record-breaking crowds, last gasp victories, great tries and another step-up in standard.
Round 5 saw Leinster make it five wins in a row over arch-rivals Munster in the first professional rugby match played at the new Aviva Stadium and the biggest crowd in the rugby playing world last weekend turned up to witness Brian O’Driscoll score the try that gave the ‘boys in blue’ a 13-9 triumph.
The 50,645 gate topped the previous Magners League record by more than 2,000 and took the cumulative attendance for the six matches in Round 5 to a record high of more than 92,000. The 30 matches in the first month saw 245,603 fans come through the turnstiles with an average gate of 8,187.
Imaginative marketing from the clubs this season has seen notable increases in crowds. Connacht attracted 11,194 to the Cardiff City Stadium for their eve of Ryder Cup clash with the Blues – a 4,000 increase on the same fixture last season – while the big west Wales derby last weekend between the Scarlets and Ospreys at Parc y Scarlets had a gate of 13,707 – the second highest figure for a Magners League game at the venue.
And all this comes at a time when more fans than ever before have been able to tune in to watch the Magners League matches on an expanded TV platform and visitors to the official tournament website, www.magnersleague.com , are rising dramatically.
“It is great to see the upward trend of last season continuing both on and off the field. The quality of matches, as well as the way they are now being marketed, is greatly improving the Magners League product and there is real excitement about what is happening in and around the league,” said new chairman Andy Irvine.
“We are on terrestrial television in the Republic of Ireland (RTE and TG4), Northern Ireland (BBC N.Ireland) and Wales (BBC Wales and S4C) and have new broadcast partners in Scotland (BBC ALBA) and Italy (Dhalia TV).
“In the first month alone they have screened live 22 of the opening 30 matches, with other matches being available on the Red Button and in extended highlights packages.”
Benetton Treviso’s introduction into the league has been a major success story to date with three home wins from four matches for them at Stadio di Monigo. Their average gate of just below 5,000 has proved there is a substantial appetite for Magners League rugby in Italy and they completed their debut month in the tournament in a highly creditable sixth place.
Ulster ended the first month of the 2010/11 campaign with the only unbeaten record, although it was fellow Irish province Munster who topped the league with 19 points out of a possible 25.
Aironi Rugby have also made life difficult for every team they have played. They scored one of the tries of the month in their opening fixture at Munster, where they were on level terms at the break, and pushed both Ulster and Edinburgh close at home.
Only four points separate the top four teams, two points then cover the middle quartet and there is another four point spread covering the bottom four sides. If last season’s race for the inaugural Play-Offs was close, this season looks like being even tenser.
“It has been a great first month of the season for the Magners League and we are delighted to have emerged as the only unbeaten team,” said Ulster skipper Rory Best.
“We had a tough start with the Grand Final winners the Ospreys coming to Ravenhill and we were very pleased to have emerged with our record intact from a tough trip to newcomers Aironi Rugby.
“The standard just keeps on rising and this season more than any before is going to test the strength in depth of all the clubs. The Italian teams have brought some extra excitement to the competition and we couldn’t have had a better way to prepare for European rugby this weekend than the first five rounds.”
Munster will go into their first Heineken Cup game as Magners League leaders despite their 13-9 defeat against Leinster and face a fascinating clash with the current leaders of the Aviva Premiership, London Irish.
The Magners League returns on Friday, 22 October with Edinburgh hosting unbeaten Ulster at Murrayfield and league leaders Munster entertaining Benetton Treviso at Thomond Park.
The following day there are two classic derby clashes, Connact v Leinster in Galway and Cardiff Blues v Scarlets at Cardiff City Stadium. The Newport Gwent Dragons also host Aironi Rugby in a vital basement battle on the same day.
Sunday, 24 October sees Glasgow Warriors get their chance to take revenge over the Ospreys for their Play-Off semi-final defeat last season.