Rugby Union: Twickenham Focus I: From cabbage patch to super stadium: Far-sighted committee men have given English rugby a home to be proud of

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The Independent Online
WHEN England play New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday the former cabbage patch will have become a king among rugby stadiums. To carry the Lewis Carroll analogy to its limit, Billy Williams, the man who found English rugby its home 86 years ago, would have imagined pigs with wings rather than the way the ground has now developed.

Other than a World Cup final, there could hardly be a more fitting way of inaugurating the new East Stand, with its triple-deck capacity of 25,000 bringing Twickenham's up to 68,000 - still nowhere near enough to accommodate the hundreds of thousands who would like to see the All Blacks.

You could even forgive the Rugby Football Union if it wished to sit back and contentedly enjoy its soaring facility but now, of all times, is not the time. No sooner is the East Stand completed than the committee of the RFU, at its meeting tomorrow, will be asked to decide whether to press on immediately with the West Stand.

The rebuilding would take two and a half years and involve maybe another pounds 16m on top of the pounds 15m spent on the East and pounds 16m on the North, which preceded the East. Richmond-upon-Thames Borough Council has already granted full planning permission to keep Twickenham as a building site to the end of 1995.

How convenient it would be to have the new Twickenham - by then holding 76,000 - available for the World Cup if the tournament had to be removed from South Africa. But not even then would the RFU be finished, because the final step would be to redesign (though probably not rebuild) the 12-year-old South Stand and so complete a gigantic bowl holding something like 82,000 people. Alas for sentiment, nothing much of the old Twickenham would remain.

You may wonder how on earth the RFU can contemplate such grandiose plans in these recessionary times. The answer is that it is precisely because of the recession that the RFU has been able to proceed so far so fast. By signing its East- Stand contract with Mowlem at the depth of the recession, the cost per seat in the East was pounds 500 compared with pounds 900 in the North. The cost per seat for the West would be around pounds 600.

Small wonder that Tony Hallett, the enlightened chairman of the RFU's ground and building committee, wishes to press on and will be saying so to the full committee tomorrow. 'We are giving English rugby a superb asset, the type of stadium it deserves,' Hallett said. 'It's well known among the RFU committee that I'm in favour of proceeding because I doubt we would ever again have such favourable conditions.'

Among them are the depressed state of the building industry, low interest rates and the unprecedentedly high public interest in rugby. Even with Twickenham's increased capacity, international matches there are routinely five-times oversubscribed. The RFU's gross take from these games is of the order of pounds 1.5m a time.

So although considerable debt would be incurred in going ahead with the West (unlike the North and East, which have been largely financed by the sale of debentures), income is more or less guaranteed both to pay the interest charges and pay off the principal. 'We have shown we can build a stand to time and to budget,' Hallett said. 'We have built the East Stand in 14 weeks less than it took to build the smaller North Stand. That is a very good launching-pad for progress, to get on with the West.'

Billy Williams would not have comprehended what has happened to Twickenham, though he did recognise the crucial potential of an out-of-town site. You have only to look at the restrictions placed on the Welsh Rugby Union by Cardiff Arms Park's city-centre location - in particular the impossibility of expansion much beyond the present capacity of 52,000 - to realise how far-sighted Williams was.

He was the RFU committee man who took on the task of finding a permanent site after England matches had moved between The Oval, Crystal Palace, Manchester, Richmond, Blackheath, Leicester, Leeds, Dewsbury, Birkenhead and Bristol in their earliest years.

When Williams found a 10-acre market-garden site there was opposition because it was 12 miles from the middle of London and might be susceptible to flooding from the River Crane. Even so, the RFU bought the land for pounds 5,500, a tidy sum in those days, and by October 1909 Billy Williams's cabbage-patch, as it was forever after known, was ready for its first match, a victory for Harlequins over Richmond.

The first international was played there in January 1910, 18,000 watching England setting out towards their first championship for 18 years by beating Wales for the first time since 1898. Indeed the Welsh came to regard Twickenham as their bogy ground, because they did not win there until 1933.

At the outset Twickenham's only stand was the East and after the land had been temporarily returned to grazing to help the First World War effort, England's success during the Twenties persuaded the RFU to pursue the ground's first major developments. Between 1925 and 1932 the North Stand was built, an upper tier added to the East and the double- decker West Stand added.

So the ground remained until 1981 when the South Enclosure was turned into the South Stand, though the futuristic design was contentious then and has since

become so unpopular and so out of keeping with the rest of the rebuilt Twickenham that few will grieve if the RFU carry on after rebuilding the West Stand. As Hallett notes regretfully, when the South Stand was built the RFU did not have the strategic building plan it has now.

The likelihood is that, with the East fully open to greet the All Blacks, the committee will vote tomorrow to proceed with the West. In which case, as soon as the Pilkington Cup final has been played on 7 May work will begin, with the intention of repeating the progress of the East by having the first tier in use by November 1994 and the whole thing finished by November 1995.

And if that makes Twickenham a stadium ahead of its time, that is the way it has, literally, always been: as the All Blacks will find on Saturday, the dressing-room clocks are by tradition set three minutes early.

(Photograph omitted)