Arms Park preservation lobby gathering support

Time is up for the National Stadium as we know it. Or is it? Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online
According to a certain Italian poet of 14th century vintage, the deepest and most remote circles of hell contained all manner of giants, sorcerers and sowers of discord. Dante knew a thing or two, obviously. For generations of England rugby players, Cardiff Arms Park was the bottom circle of hell, inhabited by nightmarish phantoms who answered to names like Gareth, Phil and Barry.

It is safe to assume that few of the tears shed on the terraces of the National Stadium when it hosts its last big Five Nations occasion this afternoon will be English. Some of the greatest red rose captains of the post-war era would not only have voted to raze the damned place to the ground, but would have volunteered to drive the bulldozers as well.

If they turn up in central Cardiff in a couple of months' time and speak nicely to the demolition contractors, they might yet exact sweet revenge on Fortress Taff. In May, sacrilegious workmen are scheduled to flatten the existing structure, re-lay the holy turf at a different angle and construct a 73,000-seater stadium, complete with retractable roof, in good time for the 1999 World Cup. It should be a snip at pounds 14m.

Jay Parrish, a director of the architects, Lobb Partnership, describes the Arms Park facilities as obsolete in comparison with the creature comforts to be found at Twickenham or Murrayfield and the Welsh Rugby Union, aware that a World Cup final would overstretch an old ground with a capacity of no more than 50,000, are in full agreement. The only way forward, say the Cardiff wheelers and dealers, is to build anew with help from the Millennium Commission.

Not surprisingly, the romantics of Welsh rugby - and they are legion - are horrified at the thought of losing the Valhalla where JJ and JPR ruled in the wide open spaces and the Viet Gwent - the Pontypool front row - squeezed opponents until they squeaked. Dai Watkins, Clive Rowlands, Brian Price and Cliff Morgan have all sounded off this week and now that the bandwagon is up and running, a late legal challenge to the entire venture cannot be ruled out.

Even high-profile supporters of the scheme are concerned that too little information has reached the public domain. Gareth Edwards, the scrum-half who bestrode the Arms Park throughout the 1970s, bemoans the "cloak and dagger" behaviour of the movers and shakers behind the project while giving his blessing to the wider principles behind the redevelopment.

"When I was embarking on my international career 30 years ago, no one wanted all the improvement work planned for the original Arms Park," he said this week. "Later, though, we all wondered how the hell we ever did without it. It's the same sort of thing now and I believe we should be positive and look ahead to something we can be proud of for the next 100 years, not just the next 10."

Cardiff City Council's chief executive, Bryon Davies, has no truck with the view that Wales would have done equally well with a far more economic upgrading of the existing stadium - "It makes no sense at all; refurbishing a facility that, in design terms, is 20 to 30 years out of date would takes us backwards rather than forwards" - but whether he likes it or not, the counter-argument is gathering pace in the Principality. There is a breed of Welsh diehard that holds history more dear than any number of space-age overlapping seating tiers or mobile, weather-resistant roof systems.

The WRU yesterday dismissed as "pure speculation" reports that Wales will play their home matches at Wembley next season. Anyway, the whole issue may be an irrelevance come the end of this afternoon. If England win in Cardiff for only the third time in 34 years, the walls of the stadium may tumble on their own. Just like the walls of Jericho.