Gloucester face pitch battle over Shed

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The Independent Online

Gloucester play a potentially momentous Heineken Cup match against Agen in southern France tonight and, as usual, the entire population of English rugby's most passionate rugby city will be sweating over the result. But the outcome of events at Stade Armandie is not of primary concern. The Cherry and White faithful are far more worried about the fate of the most celebrated piece of union infrastructure in the British Isles - the Kingsholm Shed, which they fear is about to lose its character, its heart and its soul.

Tom Walkinshaw, the Gloucester chairman, is pushing through plans for a substantial redevelopment of Kingsholm. There will be a new grandstand, the pitch will be moved, the capacity will be increased from the present 12,500 - some say to 14,000, others to 17,500. Work is scheduled to begin in March, and moves are afoot to play the "home" game with Bristol on the final day of the regular season at Ashton Gate, the Bristol City football ground.

These plans will not proceed in an atmosphere of sweetness and light, however. Not if the more vociferous Gloucester supporters have anything to do with it. They are aghast at the prospect of the Shed, a length-of-the-field terraced strip that means as much to the 4,500 West Countrymen who inhabit it as the Kop once meant to followers of Liverpool, being transformed into a 2,000-seater stand. Indeed, they view it less as a transformation than an emasculation.

Walkinshaw was not available for comment yesterday. Neither was his chief executive, Ken Nottage. But the chairman gave an indication of his thinking last July when he said: "There are a lot of people in Gloucester who want things to happen and a lot who don't want any change. I'm afraid if they want a top-flight rugby club, there has to be change. We have to get bigger and better facilities."

Bigger? Undoubtedly. Better? Not according to the critics, who intend to campaign long and hard on the issue. They believe a little piece of English rugby will die if the Shed is lost, and do not intend to let it go without a fight.

On the field, Gloucester go into this evening's game at something approaching full strength. All seven backs are involved in representative activity at the moment - Mike Tindall and Iain Balshaw are in England's squad for the Six Nations Championship; Olly Morgan, James Simpson-Daniel, Anthony Allen and Ryan Lamb are in the second-string Saxons party; Rory Lawson is favourite to play scrum-half for Scotland on Calcutta Cup day next month.

They will need all this flair and more if they are to beat Agen, whose performance in winning 32-26 at Kingsholm in October was nothing short of outstanding. But if the Premiership team prevail, they will keep alive their hopes of qualification by earning themselves a meaningful tilt at Leinster a week today - the kind of occasion that will bring the very best out of the Shed.

In the European Challenge Cup, the Premiership leaders Bristol will nail a place in the last eight if they beat Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade tonight. Bath also have a strong chance of progressing - Steve Borthwick and Danny Grewcock, two experienced international locks, will be reunited after injury and suspension in this evening's awkward match with Connacht at the Galway Sportsground.

Two other English contenders in action tonight, Harlequins and Newcastle, are struggling to make it through, having lost two pool games apiece. Quins are in Montpellier while the Geordies welcome Brive, the 1997 European champions, to Kingston Park.

* England will base themselves at Bath University's £30m sports training village for the Six Nations. The complex replaces Bisham Abbey in Buckinghamshire, which was used during the autumn Test campaign.

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