Want to go to the Rugby League World Cup Final? No problem! There are plenty of tickets available for the game at Old Trafford on 30 November so long as you don’t mind sitting in the upper tiers. The same is true of the double header semi-final at Wembley Stadium a week before, which we think looks outstanding value at as little as £20. At the same venue last Sunday evening 83,559 devotees crammed into pretty much every last seat that the stadium can offer in American Football mode.
40,000 had swelled Trafalgar Square for a fan event the day before. Many attendees at that party were young and without a ticket for the game itself. Seats had been snapped up within hours of becoming available in the various sale phases. Not only that, this was the second time in a month that gridiron had drawn a sell out audience in London, something it had already managed once a year since 2007. The atmosphere outside seemed a little more subdued than usual, possibly because of the glowering storm clouds, but once the game itself got going the crowd was largely back to its raucous self.
Sadly for the spectacle, the game ran away from the Jacksonville Jaguars quite early as Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers dished out a masterclass in dynamic quarterback play. Paul Posluszny, experienced linebacker for the Jaguars, explained:
He’s able to move really, really well for a quarterback. When we play other teams, when it’s a drop back passer, we are worried about defending the pass and matching up with receivers. When you have a running quarterback like that, your responsibilities are now split… He scrambled for some first downs where normally we would get off of the field in those situations.
Early in the second quarter the 49ers were piling up a big lead and the Mexican wave made an early appearance, but the Jaguars kept regrouping and trying to change the momentum, eventually managing to get on the board with a field goal moments before half time to avoid a shutout though still facing a dauntingly uphill 28-3 deficit.
They kept the momentum early in the second half, but couldn’t convert from five yards out. As San Francisco began to reply many thought the ball was dead as Jags defenders pursued it and forced a great turnover on a fumble 28 yards from the end zone. A couple of plays later Mike Brown lost Tramaine Brock on the sideline and Chad Henne launched the ball to his wide open receiver in the corner to make the score an intriguing 28-10.
Most in the crowd were aware that this was the first instalment of four visits over the coming years to which the Jaguars had already committed and those who were not 49ers fans rallied to their cause, but not long afterwards running back Frank Gore, returning to a scene of recent glories, effectively put the game on ice with a powerful score. Twice in the final quarter the Jaguars threatened but San Francisco kept them at bay and even added another touchdown on a fumble recovery for a final score of 42-10.
Comfortably beaten and without a win in any of their eight games so far you could reasonably have expected rattled despondency from the Jaguars key personnel after the game, but instead there was an atmosphere of quiet, and surprisingly authentic, confidence, of beginning to build for the future. Veteran running back Maurice Jones-Drew was particularly impressive as he calmly and thoughtfully engaged with a wide range of awkward subjects:
We have to be able to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. It takes time to do that… When you do go through certain things, losses, these types of struggles, this adversity, when we turn this thing around, it’s going to make it that much better because you know how far you’ve come. I have been on teams that won. In high school I never lost a game. We knew we were going to win when we stepped on the field because we knew how hard we worked. When I got to college, it was different. It was 6-6 routinely. When I left, it was 10-2. We knew how much a win meant. That’s how it is here. We’re going to keep fighting. We know what it takes. You have to keep putting forth that effort. When you do start winning, you’ll understand it and appreciate it more.
Something else he appreciated was the experience in London, as did Posluszny:
Playing in this stadium is unbelievable. The amount of people here, and the fans that attended. The fact that the game got out of hand in the fourth quarter, but everybody stayed, and were really supportive and loud. The crowd was unbelievable. It was one of the best NFL atmospheres that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of.
Only Dallas, who’ll be Jacksonville’s opponents at Wembley next year, can routinely muster the sheer size of live NFL audience he had just performed for. With three games next year, the NFL’s presence in London is poised to move from an annual showcase to the beginnings of business as usual. As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently put it, “I think we’ve gone beyond the curiosity factor.” The issue of a London franchise becomes less speculative each year and a writer who follows the Jaguars was moved to comment at the weekend that “Nobody can legitimately rule it out,” though he hoped Wembley would remain simply a regular second home for his own team.
On our way to this latest NFL game we were keen to ask those travelling around us whether they would continue to invest their money and their time on every occasion that the NFL came to town. It was just a thumbnail study, a handful of people not necessarily representative of the wider community, but the results were interesting.
Only one of the group of eight was adamant that he would attend all three games, regardless of the price. Another was keen if he could get a “season ticket” for a hundred pounds or less. There was some good news for the Jaguars in that two of the group were attending an International Series match for the first time. The UK Jaguars fan club, Union Jax, can boast a Twitter following of over 1,700, and they’ll surely be pleased to hear that such unaffiliated newcomers are still being enticed to Wembley. They might be Jaguars fans in the making.
It was clearly too late with the other four. Each had originally been galvanised by TV coverage, some in the 80s, some in the UK TV resurgence early in this century, and had adopted teams soon afterwards when they spent significant time in the States: Tampa, Dallas, Baltimore and San Francisco. They loved the sport and praised it’s presentation and packaging (if not its merchandising which some sighed was still very US-centric in choice and postage costs), but sounded like they would be more choosy as attendance opportunities increased.
Jacksonville-Dallas was the most popular of next year’s fixtures with a strong appetite to see the Cowboys back in the UK for the first time in around 30 years. Some thought the best atmosphere would be the hugely popular Miami Dolphins matched with the diehard fans of the Oakland Raiders. There was widespread acknowledgement that the Atlanta Falcons against the Detroit Lions was likely to provide the best contest, but it attracted the least commitment at this very early stage. Some imaginative combination pricing might be required to make that match yet another 80,000 plus sellout. It’s food for thought that even if there were a few thousand empty seats, only top flight football and international rugby union can seriously rival that kind of regular attendance in this country. Who says it’s not our game?