Rugby Union: A monster for the Millennium

The man behind Cardiff's new stadium believes it will be the best in the world.
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The Independent Online
THE GUTS are still hanging loose from the body; umpteen miles of electrical wiring, heating pipes and reinforced steel cables, all left dangling with no particular place to go. Twenty-five thousand seats have been slotted into place, which sounds rather impressive until you realise that another 47,500 are still awaiting installation. And the pitch? Ah, the pitch. Not a single blade of state-of-the-art, criminally expensive, "palletised" grass will be placed upon the hallowed ground of the old Arms Park until a dozen monstrous cranes evacuate the site at some point in early June.

Yet Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, the most impressive Welsh sporting structure to grace the game of rugby union since Bob Norster won his last line-out, will be ready on time. What is more, it will take the breath away.

Glanmor Griffiths, the chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, is not alone in his opinion that this uniquely cantilevered Palais des Sports - complete with its retractable roof, its riverside walkway and its cafe society restaurants - will prove a snip at pounds 100m (or pounds 120m, depending on the latest estimate).

"Think of what was here before - an obsolete, 52,000- capacity stadium with a few toilets and not much else - and now marvel at the thing we have put in its place," he said during yesterday's announcement of a pounds 2m sponsorship deal with the brewers, Bass. But more persuasive, somehow, was the contribution of a fast-talking East Coast American by the name of Todd Staley, who oversaw the building of Atlanta's Olympic Stadium in the three years leading up to the 1996 Games and is now the Millennium Stadium project manager.

"It will be the best stadium in Europe, for sure, and, if you're pressing me, I'm not sure I know of any stadium in the world that competes with this one in terms of viewing lines and flexibility. The crowd will be so close to the action; if you're sitting in the front row the game will be about six metres away from you. The feeling of involvement will be same as it was with the old Arms Park, but with the crowd sitting down in comfort, out of the wind and rain. I don't think there will be any stadium to challenge this for a good 10 years."

Griffiths confirmed that Wales would open the new stadium with a game against South Africa, the world champions, on 26 June in front of an audience approaching 40,000 - the largest crowd for which the local authority is likely to grant a safety certificate at that stage. The capacity will rise for the two August internationals with Canada and France, with the full 72,500 in place for the World Cup opener with Argentina on 1 October. The chairman insisted that those dates and figures were "cast in stone", although he probably meant precast concrete, judging by the amount of the stuff lying around on site.

When Staley referred to a "next generation stadium", he might also have been describing the proposed playing surface. The grass will be delivered in pallets measuring 1.1 square metres and laid over the space of a fortnight.

"The beauty of this stuff is that it is completely manoeuvrable," he explained. "If there are damaged areas around, say, the half-way line, you can lift the section without killing the grass and swap it with a pristine piece from the in-goal area. Again, if you're going to hold a concert or an exhibition on site, you don't have to cover the pitch and hope for the best. You can lift it right out."

As for Rob Howley and his pampered Red Dragon professionals, they will enjoy creature comforts on a Bridesheadian scale; indeed, the six physiotherapy beds and six jacuzzis in the Welsh dressing room might prove counter-productive, given that no-one in his right mind would want to swap so cosy an environment for an afternoon's bump and grind against the All Blacks or the Pumas. When Staley was asked if visiting teams would be treated equally royally, he replied: "Oh sure. It's just that they'll get the exhaust fumes from the car park in their dressing room." He may have been joking, but then again...

With the 600-strong, round-the-clock workforce about to be almost doubled for the final push towards completion, Staley has never been more confident of meeting his deadline; indeed, he was 99 per cent certain of beating the clock, even when the WRU's dispute with the neighbouring Cardiff club denied the construction team access to water and, staggeringly, sufficient airspace to swing their cranes. "You get peaks and valleys in this job and you encounter particular problems with a city centre site, but we've always known where we were headed and the milestones we had to reach," he said, his New Jersey swagger in full flow.

In a little over two months, the cranes will be gone, the pitch will be laid and the Welsh will have a palace fit for kings. All they need now is a new Gareth. Maybe Staley knows where he can get one.