Only 7.200 supporters attended Munster's victory over Ulster in the Guinness Pro12 two weeks ago. Afterwards, Anthony Foley bemoaned the paltry attendance.
He told the Irish Independent;
It is disappointing that the crowd was what it was. The umbilical chord has always been there between Munster and our supporters. It's important people come and support us.
You've got to come and sample it. Watching it on TV is only armchair stuff - you've got to come here and feel it. It's important for Limerick that everyone comes out and supports the game. It's a big stadium that needs filling and it's a great atmosphere.
For Saturday's Heineken Cup opener against Treviso, the crowd was bigger but not by a whole lot.
What to make of this?
Observing the fervour of their supporters during the noughties, it was easy to assume that the red hordes have been travelling to Munster games since the earliest days of the oval game (as George Hook might phrase it).
The truth is that Munster's success in the professional era pre-dates the bulk of their following jumping on board - not the other way around.
With Munster now struggling to compete with the top sides in Europe, a large portion of that support seems to be drifting away. We asked historian Dr. Liam O'Callaghan, the author of Rugby in Munster: a social and cultural history for his assessment of this trend.
Last year, we wrote about Munster's first ever match in the Heineken Cup back in November 1995. O'Callaghan was there that day as Munster pipped Swansea thanks to late winning try by Shannon full back Pat Murray.
Thomond Park was only half-full and the chatter on the terrace was not about Munster and their chances in this new-fangled competition but about the upcoming AIL games. The main concern was that one of these Munster players might pick up an injury and miss a genuinely important match.
There were a few thousand at it, there was no real fuss about it, and everybody in the crowd was just talking about the club fixtures of the previous weekend. This Munster thing was just a gentle distraction from the much more important business of AIL fixtures.
The attendance was such at the stadium that both of us viewed the game by following the play quite easily by walking around the game to follow where the action was. It was quite easy to position oneself behind the goals at Conversion time , in a vain effort to be photographed... In terms of hype around the game, for us as supporters, we were more inquisitive as to how the new competition would take off, considering it was at a time when the AIL was the be all and end all in Irish competition terms.
O'Callaghan says the drop in Munster's attendances in recent years was wholly predictable. A transient fanbase was attracted to Munster because of their success in the last decade and now that success has disappeared they are disappearing too.
Firstly, it's no great surprise. The crowds were attracted first and foremost by success. And in the last six or seven years, that's kind of fallen away. And we're seeing crowds falling away as well.
Pre-professionalism, Munster participated in the dowdy and unglamorous inter-provincial championship every winter. This competition was accompanied by resounding public disinterest (that Ulster won it every year from 1984 to 1994 may have contributed to the southern media's lukewarm attitude to the competition). It was barely any glitzier than the Railway Cup.
If you had a touring side coming from Australia and New Zealand, then you might get a big crowd but the old inter-provincial championship was a really unloved competition, a few men and his dog used to show up to watch it. The real hardcore support went to club football... that's where you got the crowds. The Munster phenomenon only took off in the professional era so there was always something new-fangled about it in the first instance.
Given that the Munster phenomenon is relatively recent, you see a lot of flexibility around demand on the supporters side, so the entrenched loyalties that older football clubs in England would have going back 150 years may not apply to the same extent.
Will the decline in the crowds at Thomond Park continue? Well, the level of success enjoyed in the mid-noughties is unlikely to return to Munster in the short-term. Ireland's provincial teams are struggling to keep pace with the monied French outfits.
No other team - apart from the other provinces - is so dependant on the players it can produce in its immediate geographical area. If you compare that to the Toulon team that won the Heineken Cup last year, they had only one player from the city of Toulon... I really think the bar has been raised in the last few years and the Irish provincial structure and business model can't really compete.
Listen to the interview below:
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