SEVEN thousand unsold tickets for last weekend's Scotland v Wales international at Murrayfield were a "concern, not a worry" for Scottish Rugby Union chief executive Gordon McKie, who revealed yesterday that national team coach Andy Robinson apologised to him for the sub-standard Scotland performance that led to many supporters leaving the match early.
"Seats being unsold were disappointing," McKie said of a match whose attendance was lower than that for the two Sunday games between the countries in Edinburgh in recent years. "Why were they unsold? The economy UK-wide, including Scotland and Wales, is going through a difficult time.
"There are fewer people coming up (from Wales]: there was a lesser take-up from Welsh clubs as well as from our own. Yes, we were very disappointed. We're not immune to reality.
"But without making excuses for those sales figures, you have to look at what's happening elsewhere too. Other matches have not been sold out, and other sports, including football, have experienced something similar."
Scotland supporters voted with their feet in two different ways last week - once in the case of those who opted to stay away from the Wales game, and a second time in the case of those who walked out early after seeing the team go 16-0 down in the first half. "Yes, we were very disappointed with the performance," McKie accepted. "It was unacceptable, and one I'm sure Andy (Robinson] will want to tackle head-on next week when he comes back.
"I saw them (leaving] as well. That sort of thing I do notice and it troubles me greatly. Andy was not slow to apologise to me personally, which is a measure of the man. He recognises there is a correlation between performance and attendance, and people leaving early is unsatisfactory from our perspective. The team need to play to a level that makes people want to stay till the end of the game."
With 4,000 tickets left for the visit of Ireland on Sunday week, that match is already set to top the Wales attendance of just over 60,000, although even that statistic offers little consolation for two fixtures which, in the past, have found demand for tickets out-stripping supply. Sales for the Italy game on Saturday 19 March are currently standing at a little over 30,000.
After the match against the Italians, Scotland's next home games will be warm-ups for the Rugby World Cup. Those games will be competitively priced, with the likelihood of sizeable cuts in ticket prices from Six Nations levels. "We will launch our August games in the near future, coinciding with our launch of our 2012 Six Nations Games (against England and France]," McKie said. "We will be mindful of the economy when we announce the ticket prices for those games, particularly in August.
"August is a strange time of year, because it's the holiday season and it's difficult to get beds in Edinburgh."
Asked if that meant there would be a significant reduction in prices for those games, he replied: "You can assume that. We are realistic."
In the case of those two home Six Nations games next year, however, a modest increase may be the best supporters can hope for. "There is a significant demand for the England game," McKie said. "France is harder to sell because fewer supporters travel. "We don't see a significant increase in prices. It's more important we get Murrayfield as full as we can."
McKie does not appear to think that the poor attendances at Edinburgh and Glasgow games this season, as well as the decline in crowds at Test matches, are indicative of a waning enthusiasm for rugby in Scotland. Any downward trend, he believes, is a temporary one, which should be assessed soberly rather than being greeted with panic.
"Are we worried about it?," he asked. "I'm not worried. We are concerned, which is a lesser expression than worried."
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