Brussels to stage Saracens’ ‘home’ Heineken Cup match
IT may become known as the venue that marked Craig Levein’s last stand as Scotland football manager, but the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels is the setting for a new dawn this weekend when English rugby side Saracens play a “home” match in the arena designed to spread interest in the game and enhance Belgium’s status as an emerging rugby nation.
Saracens will host Racing Metro 92 of Paris in a pool tie in the King Baudouin, normally a venue for athletics and football. On Tuesday this week, it hosted Belgium’s 2-0 win over Scotland in a World Cup qualifier. Saracens and Racing Metro are in Edinburgh’s pool, the English side having beaten the Scots convicingly in their campaign opener at Murrayfield last Saturday.
Brussels Mayor Freddy Thielemans believes the match will place the city on the rugby map internationally, persuading other clubs to come. The fact that he is a former prop explains his interest. The match resulted from a conversation with an ex-Saracens player he knew. Brussels also hopes to benefit economically, and Visit Brussels says the average foreign tourist to the city spends 170 euros per day.
Saracens, who have held coaching sessions in Brussels in the past weeks, say they expect some 2,000 travelling fans. A similar number are predicted to arrive from Paris.
Organisers estimate the crowd will reach 20,000-30,000, drawn from Belgium’s rugby community, and the many expatriates who live in Brussels. Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths believes the game would have attracted some 7,000 people if held in their normal home of Watford. “There is an audience in Brussels,” he said.
Belgium will become the 10th nation to stage a Heineken Cup match, but this is the cup’s first real excursion. Other than games in the seven participant nations, matches in San Sebastian and Barcelona in Spain and Switzerland’s Geneva were short, cross-border forays by neighbouring French teams. “It’s important for us that we have this chance to show we can organise a big event. We have made a shift from amateur to semi-pro and are at something of a turning point,” said Jan Coupe, president of the Belgian rugby federation.
Saracens have played at Twickenham and Wembley, including a March match against Harlequins in front of a world-record club crowd of almost 84,000. They plan in February to move to a new home with a synthetic pitch, another first for the English Premiership. They sought to play Heineken Cup matches in Cape Town and in New York but the latter plan was thwarted because the venue would not allow rugby posts to its artificial turf. “Rugby sevens are coming to the Olympics and there’s the World Cup in England in 2015. We need to be bold and innovative,” said’ Griffiths.
Brussels welcomed leading rugby nation Argentina, who played Belgium in a 2007 pre-World Cup friendly – the result a reasonably respectable 36-8 loss for the hosts. It organised a Heineken Cup match in December 2009 when Stade Francais of Paris were to host Irish club Ulster. However, heavy snow and ice forced a cancellation. Belgium are not the minnows they were when Jacques Rogge, now president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), played for them in the 1960s.
They are 23rd in the world, compared with their standing of 54th when rankings began in 2003, and won promotion this year to European division 1A, one below the elite Six Nations.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east