RUGBY UNION: Walkinshaw warning

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The Independent Online
THEY WILL never believe it down Kingsholm way; or rather, they will not believe it until they turn up at Kingsholm and find a supermarket where the most celebrated of all English club rugby grounds used to be. Tom Walkinshaw, the motor racing magnate who now owns 98 per cent of Gloucester RFC following his latest buy-up of shares, went out of his way yesterday to reassure the Cherry and White faithful that he had no immediate desire to knock their world off its axis, but he remains serious about uprooting the city's pride and joy if commercial reality so demands.

"Rugby will grow tremendously as a spectator sport over the next few years and I'll be very disappointed if, in three or four years' time, we don't have a stadium requirement of 20,000 plus," said the English First Division Rugby chairman after raising his shareholding from 73 per cent at a special general meeting. "If we get a spectator base that outgrows Kingsholm, we will have to think about relocating. There are a lot of Roman ruins beneath the ground and that could prevent development. But I must add that relocation is not the plan at the moment."

It may become the plan sooner rather than later. There is little chance of the local authorities permitting Gloucester to double the size of Kingsholm, which is situated no more than a long line-out throw from the city centre; indeed, it occupies a prime site that would fetch mega-bucks on the open market. In addition, Walkinshaw and some of his fellow directors suspect that a move out of town would help them attract support from further afield. Neither Swindon nor Oxford boasts a senior rugby outfit.

Walkinshaw will not hesitate to make the tough call if he feels there is no option; his tenure as the EFDR chairman - the most influential political position in the professional club movement - has been marked by a willingness to confront and, on occasion, stare down the more conservative elements within the Rugby Football Union. He is one of the most enthusiastic advocates of a "minimum criteria" policy for the top flight of the Allied Dunbar Premiership, under which clubs would have to meet strict financial and stadium requirements. If that means him breaking with a century of Gloucester tradition, so be it.

Meanwhile, Gloucester have signalled their renewed interest in Neil Jenkins, the Welsh outside-half whose long love affair with Pontypridd has been on the rocks for some time. Both Cardiff and Bath have pursued Jenkins in the recent past - indeed, Cardiff were thought to be near certainties to secure his signature as recently as a fortnight ago - but the decision of Mark Mapletoft, the England A stand-off, to quit Gloucester for Saracens opens the door for a big-money bid.