It’s quite a year to be a follower of sport in Wales. The Six Nations Championship, Cardiff City promoted to the Premier League, Swansea City winning the Capital One Cup, Wrexham lifting the FA Trophy, and next weekend either Wrexham or Newport will win promotion to Football League 2. The next thing you know, Glamorgan will find a quick bowler who will be fast tracked into the England cricket team. Then again, maybe not.
You cannot ignore though, the large welsh contingent in the Lions squad for the tour to Australia this summer. The party will be captained by Wales back row Sam Warburton. There’s no place for England skipper Chris Robshaw, and despite his match winning performance in the Heineken Cup semi finals for Toulon, Jonny Wilkinson doesn’t make the 37 man squad either, although the door might be open for him should either Sexton or Farrell get injured.
Farrell, you would think, will be England’s fly half when the 2015 Rugby World Cup comes round, although Gloucester’s Colonel Gaddafi lookalike Freddie Burns will surely be pushing Farrell hard for his place, and later this week we’ll find out which venues will stage which matches in the tournament. The quirk is that most of the venues on the long list from which the final 12 will be chosen do not stage rugby union on a regular basis.
The concept of sharing venues is more prevalent in other parts of the world than it is in the UK, although it must be said football is often not involved. The mere suggestion of sharing and dispensing with years of history and heritage is enough to turn the majority of football supporters into the most stubborn of individuals.
Here, though, it’s not about another team – possibly one you don’t even like – invading your space. This is a world (if not world wide) tournament pitching up and playing a couple of international games in your part of the country. You may not know the players, you may not even be that familiar with the rules, but after the Olympic Games last year, the British public has proved they know an event when they see one. And if your club can pocket some funds out of it all, then what’s the problem ?
Actually, the size of your pitch – as Leicester Tigers found out. They may have the biggest club rugby support in the country, but the postage stamp that is Welford Road didn’t meet the playing area size criteria, and so Leicester City’s King Power Stadium was chosen instead. Capacity may also have been an issue. Welford Road holds 8,000 fewer people than the more modern football facility, and that’s a recurring theme throughout the options available to the organisers.
The number of new football grounds built in recent years means six others – Brighton, Coventry, Derby, Milton Keynes, Southampton and Sunderland – are all in the frame, even if several appear to be up against each other in an “either/or” situation.
So, as Tigers look enviously on, just two Aviva Premiership teams have a chance to host games, and they meet on the final day of the regular season. The grounds are a contrast. More than a third of fans at Gloucester Rugby’s Kingsholm ground can stand rather than sit down, but “The Shed” – the club’s famous covered terrace – can generate an emotional atmosphere in a city centre venue. Sandy Park, home of Exeter Chiefs, was a late addition to the field. Adjacent to the M5 motorway, the current capacity is only 10,000, but there are plans to double it. Whilst selection would give those plans imputus, west country rugby supporters look certain to be travelling north or east, and it will be interesting to see how the swathes of the country with no top flight rugby engage with the tournament.
I remember a story told to me by Ken Nottage, the former Managing Director of Gloucester Rugby. Before coming to Kingsholm, he worked in the north east at Newcastle, where the Falcons live in the considerable shadow of Newcastle United. He revealed how they tried to get United supporters to come and watch the Falcons.
Any idea you can think of, they probably tried it. They even tried to tap into the thousands of fans who were on the waiting list for St James Park season tickets, offering them the chance to experience top flight rugby at Kingston Park at attractive rates. The take up was tiny, and I mean ridiculously tiny, but I’ll wager that the people of Newcastle won’t want the Stadium of Light in Sunderland getting the nod ahead of their own mecca for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
To that end, my prediction would be that the grounds to miss out – along with Exeter’s Sandy Park – will be Ashton Gate, Pride Park, St Mary’s, the Stadium of Light and,perhaps a left field selection, Villa Park. Although it is smaller, I wonder if Coventry City’s Ricoh Arena might get the west midlands vote. My south coast selection is the Amex Stadium at Brighton, which has drawn a lot of favourable reviews.
Each venue will host a minimum of two games. For those chosen, it’s a chance to be part of this run of major sporting events which we are unlikely to see again: Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, Rugby World Cup.
For Gloucester, they could be the only regular club rugby venue selected for this prestigious tournament. Grounds to remember that while Kingsholm has its faults, its appeal and reputation remain.
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