Wales start their November series against Scotland on Saturday and if there’s a dryness in the air, it’s not just the autumnal conditions. The new “dry” no alcohol section of seating is the Welsh Rugby Union’s trial to counter growing complaints. Graham Thomas drank coffee only in the North Stand with chief executive Martyn Phillips.
You’ll be able to spot them – high up in the North Stand, surrounded by a sea of demon drinkers like some modern day meeting of the Temperance Movement.
These are the puritans, the abstainers, the sober citizens who do not wish to be sullied or tempted by contact with the rowdy revellers all around them. They are the Presbyterian Tabernacle of Westgate Street. The South Stand? That’s the devil’s enclave.
At least, that’s how the Welsh Rugby Union appear to have categorised them, those fans who suggested their enjoyment of watching Wales play wasn’t enhanced by the all the swilling, the spillages, the swaying and the sight-blocking that was going on all around them.
The Union’s move to at least do something to stop the Wetherspoonisation of the Principality Stadium, should be applauded. It’s a start.
But it’s not enough and it misses the point with its corralling of 4,000 people into an area where beers cannot be brought to the seats.
It’s as though they are the problem – a rugby ASBO for the un-inebriated.
The many supporters who backed Dai Sport’s campaign of last season to improve both the atmosphere and the behaviour inside the stadium, were not asking for a vacuum-sealed, isolated experience up the gods (in the oldest part of the stadium, by the way).
They just wanted other people to stop acting like dickheads.
They just wanted the Union to share that aim by restricting the constant flow of beer and people for the 80 minutes of the game itself.
It wasn’t much to ask. It wouldn’t have cost them a lot in lost sales and it might even have made them a few quid by enticing people back who’d had enough of being irritated by the amateur tray-waiters.
Instead, we have the dry bubble in the North Stand, a kind of kettling operation for the moaners.
For their part, the WRU insist this solution was not a publicity gimmick, but the result of careful scientific analysis.
Chief executive Martyn Phillips sat down with Dai Sport and told us: “This a topic that is not short on opinion, but short on fact.
“The bits we know from our surveys is that 84 per cent of supporters say that having a drink on match day is a big part of their experience. We don’t know whether that means having that drink in the city, or the stadium.
“But, equally, we don’t want to be an organisation that buries its head in the sand. Is there a market for people who want an alcohol free zone? I think there is.”
But what about a market for people who don’t want to be part of a beerless brigade? They might even get a pint before kick-off, but wouldn’t dream of then barging and elbowing past others sat down who have paid good money to see the game. What about them?
They’re in the minority, apparently. They don’t compute.
“Getting up and down for drinks, the vast majority of people say that one of the reasons they like rugby is that they can watch the game and have a drink. The data says they are the majority.
“There is a minority who don’t want that, so our job is to see if we can flex, over time, the way we operate this stadium to meet the needs of different types of customers.
“I think it will be ground-breaking if we can do that. It will take a bit of time, but to ignore it would be foolish. People have a choice and if they say they don’t want to go to the game anymore because there are things that happen that they don’t like, then that’s a problem. I’d like to address it before it becomes a bigger problem.
“The principle driver here is understanding your consumer and giving them what they want. All the best companies in the world do that. I don’t lead with the idea, ‘how much money can we make from this?’ I lead with the idea, what does the consumer want?
“The next point may be that the area is behind the posts and do people want to be along the touchline. That’s something we can potentially look at.
“But at the end of the day, we are a union of clubs and we need to make money to invest in the game.”
He may now sit on a softly-padded seat over the halfway line, with plenty of leg-room, but the former boss of B&Q insists he knows the harsher world of the cold-arsed paying punter, who are now – for safety and security reasons – being asked to sit down up to three hours before kick-off.
“I’m 50 now and I’ve spent 47 years as a supporter and three years as an employee. I know what it’s like to sit in a seat here and I kept coming.
“It’s an entertainment business. The opportunity for this stadium and for others is in the digital space. How do we make the experience of coming into this ground as interesting as it can be.
“The potentially untapped area is how you use technology to make it interesting. That’s where we will go. But the three-hour period before kick-off is genuinely about safety. That’s one thing we will never compromise on.”
It’s a useful and reassuring attribute for the head of any organisation to want to modernise and innovate. And much of what the current CEO has done to bring the WRU up to speed should earn him credit.
But here’s a bold step. Here’s a revolutionary suggestion. Be the first among the home Unions to sell beer and entertain in the “digital space” beforehand – and afterwards, too – but shut up shop for 80 minutes and see if behaviour, and atmosphere, improves.
It might even be a clever piece of marketing: You can do it, when you WRU it.