Rugby triumphs in 'battle for soul of Wales'

Forward move: An artist's impression of how Cardiff Arms Park will look in 1999 Photograph: Huw Evans
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The Independent Online

The Millennium Commission yesterday handed out a pounds 46m grant for a new Welsh rugby union stadium from lottery money - only two months after it turned down a grant for an opera house in the city.

Cardiff's world-famous home of rugby, the Arms Park, will be knocked down and a new pounds 114m millennium stadium will be built in time for Wales's opening game in the 1999 Rugby World Cup against the holders, South Africa.

The stadium will hold 75,000 spectators and be the first in Britain to have a retractable roof. There will also be a fitness and medical centre, conference and hospitality suites, a rugby museum and a public plaza, all expected to create 1,400 construction jobs and 800 full-time jobs.

Yesterday's announcement from the Deputy Prime Minister and Millennium Commissioner, Michael Heseltine, that the stadium will host musical concerts may throw doubt on plans for the pounds 86m Cardiff Bay opera house. Those campaigning for a rugby stadium, including the Labour MP for Cardiff West, Rhodri Morgan, last year insisted it should take precedence over any opera house plans. And the two competing bids were dubbed "a battle for the soul of Wales".

But opera house trustees insisted yesterday that the bids were not competing, and they were optimistic about their new bid for millennium funds in July.

Rugby's success was greeted with understandable joy by the Welsh rugby union world.

The WRU secretary, Edward Jones, said the stadium "will make us the envy of the sporting world".

Current winger and British Lion, Ieuan Evans, added yesterday: "We will have a stadium fit for a worldwide spectacle in 1999. Going into the new millennium Wales will have a venue to put it at the forefront of international events."

Mr Heseltine, who was born in Swansea, said: "It will be a catalyst for investment, an international landmark and a symbol of pride for Wales."

He also announced a grant of pounds 21.7m towards a pounds 43m National Botanical Garden for Wales near Llandeilo in Dyfed.

Although millennium grants to Wales are already pounds 102m, campaigners for an opera house remain optimistic.

The project director, Mandy Wix, said yesterday: "It's brilliant news for Wales. We have got two Millennium projects and now we want to make it a Triple Crown."