The Twickenham experience

How many pints of sweat can you wring from Brian Moore's shirt? And where do the '57 old farts' sink their gin?
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The Independent Culture
English rugby and the monarchy have more in common at the moment than Will Carling. Both institutions are in flux, if not full-blown crisis. However, you'd never guess the turmoil that has recently beset the Rugby Football Union when you take the supremely slick organised tour around its HQ. The RFU may be relegation contenders when it comes to organising the professional game, but they are surely league champions in self-promotion.

The Twickenham Experience is the sort of day out no rugby anorak (or should that be Barbour?) would want to miss out on. Taking the tour round the ground, which tomorrow hosts that beery bonanza, the Middlesex Sevens, you learn everything from why the Royal Box is covered by a net (to prevent rugby hoolies from crowning the Queen with a can of beer) to the identity of the sculptor responsible for the rather arty relief of a rugby tackle on the side of the East Stand (Tommy Steele - yes, it is that Tommy Steele). Just about the only stat you're not given is how Brian Moore caused that ominous dark stain on the wall of the home dressing-room. All the guide will tell us is that it was left there after England lost in the 1991 World Cup Final against Australia...

John Harris, said guide, looks like a stalwart of the pre-match car-park barbecues in his blue double-breasted blazer and RFU tie. But he makes for a lively courier, waving a touch judge's flag to gain the attention of our St David's Day group, which includes: some Welsh players patriotically sporting leeks in their buttonholes; members of a Dutch team, resplendent in club blazers and ponytails; a fanatical leather-jacketed female Llanelli fan; and a group of local schoolboys (you can tell they are local because two of them are wearing Manchester United caps).

Taking the lift to the sixth floor, 105ft above ground-level, you look down on the pitch from seats angled at 32 degrees - the steepest the Safety Council allows. You're more in danger of being hospitalised with vertigo than GBH. Last year, so Harris assures us, only two supporters out of the 500,000 who visited the ground were arrested.

A worthy rival to Statto from Fantasy Football League, Harris is a mine of such gripping trivia. Did you know, for instance, that 40 of the 1,000 matchday stewards form a crack anti-streaker unit, or that the groundsman walks eight miles every time he mows the pitch, or that the Jehovah's Witnesses hire the ground every summer and bring their own swimming-pool along to conduct a mass-baptism?

In the West Stand, we are taken into the Royal Box, where the Queen is given much more leg-room than a person of her stature strictly needs, and shown the Committee Bar. Here the "57 old farts" of Carling's infamous remark can sneak in for a cockle-warming snifter during the match. How much of the play they follow after that is anyone's guess.

On the wall of the President's dining-room hangs an 1895 picture of Yorskhire playing Lancashire. One of the players has clearly been airbrushed out of the painting - apparently because he signed to play Rugby League. Proof that Union bigotry is nothing new. "They'll have to paint him back in again very shortly," quips Harris.

The League theme continues down in the home dressing-room, which has only 13 showers. "Perhaps the architect knew something we didn't," Harris muses. The clock on the wall is always two minutes fast, to make sure that tardy players take the field on time. The warm-up room contains basketball nets, a scrum machine and a punchbag - not that any player would dream of throwing a punch on the pitch.

In the medical room, Harris goes into stats overdrive, revealing that they wrung two pints of sweat out of Brian Moore's shirt after one game and that in 1981 a Russian player missed the official dinner because after nine pints of lager and nine pints of water he was still unable to provide a random post-match urine sample.

If you're not reeling from information overload, you can then pack down for the Museum of Rugby, where a cut-out of the 6ft 10in lock Martin Bayfield and the sound of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" greet you at the East Stand entrance. Inside this comprehensive collection of rugby-ana, there is a mock-up of a post-match changing-room so convincing it is littered with footprints, old beer cans, pots of Vaseline and used jockstraps. It even smells of Ralgex.

You can also listen in to a recording of the first live BBC commentary on any sport: the England vs Wales game from 1927. Captain HBT Wakelam - the inventor of the square-plan for following the game and thus the phrase "back to square one" - has a cut-glass accent so caricatured it would have been rejected as over-the-top for Harry Enfield's Mercury ads. He was given just two words of advice for his commentary: "Don't swear."

The long day closes in the RFU shop, where you can buy everything from an England pillow-case to Competence Based Assessment System - Manual for Assessors.

As I depart clutching my purchase - a baby's bib proclaiming "Join the Scrum at Twickenham" - the words with which Harris opened the tour jink into my head: "This place used to be known as 'Fortress Twickenham', but it's a bit more pleasant now."

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