Greater grounds for optimism

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The Independent Online

One of the great things about winning the Webb Ellis Cup is that you can call yourselves world champions for four very long years. And as the Rugby Football Union, glowing in the reflected glory, pushes ahead with plans to further enhance Twickenham, England's clubs are reporting record attendances.

One of the great things about winning the Webb Ellis Cup is that you can call yourselves world champions for four very long years. And as the Rugby Football Union, glowing in the reflected glory, pushes ahead with plans to further enhance Twickenham, England's clubs are reporting record attendances.

Premier Rugby says that many grounds cannot cope with the demand and that the average capacity at Premiership clubs needs to rise to 15,000, requiring an investment of £100 million. Last week Leicester, typically ahead in the professional game, announced their intention to create a joint company with Leicester City to buy the Walkers Stadium and turn it into a "super sports complex".

This, they say, would be a ground-breaking venture. "Unlike some rugby clubs who use football grounds, this wouldn't be a big brother, little brother relationship, we would be twins,'' said a Tigers spokesman. "We would have three directors on the board, City would have three and we would play on alternate Saturdays. We have put a huge pot of money aside for this and it's better then any of the alternatives.''

The stadium would be re-branded inside and out and a new £1m playing surface laid to accommodate football and rugby in time for next season. Welford Road, leased by the Tigers from the City Council, has a capacity of 17,000, which is too small to cater for the club's support. A final exit through the turnstiles of the stamping ground of the World Cup winning captain Martin Johnson will be an emotional journey for Leicester but nostalgia is no match for commerce. Ask the Welsh.

Across the Severn there are more startling developments, with the imminent demise of St Helen's in Swansea and Stradey Park in Llanelli, two of the most evocative venues in the history of the game. The Neath-Swansea Ospreys will have a new home next year, a purpose-built stadium at Morfa on the outskirts of Swansea, although they will not be able to say "it's mine, all mine". The ground, described as a mini-Millennium Stadium, will be shared with Swansea City FC in a joint venture with the local council.

St Helen's, overlooking Swansea Bay, was converted from sandhills into an eight-acre enclosure and was shared by the cricket and rugby clubs. On 16 December 1882 it staged the first rugby international played in Wales when England, with nine players from Blackheath and Richmond, took the sea air. St Helen's would then alternate with Cardiff Arms Park to host international matches.

In 1921 the WRU expected a crowd of 35,000 for the visitors Scotland; more than 60,000 attended, some spilling on to the pitch causing a 12 minute interruption to play. When Swansea Rugby Club surrendered the lease to the council, whose building priorities were dominated by war-time bombing damage, the WRU abandoned St Helen's as an international venue. The swansong, on 10 April 1954, was Wales's 15-3 victory over Scotland.

St Helen's remained the home of the All Whites and Glamorgan CCC and in the summer of 1968 it made world headlines when Gary Sobers dispatched Malcolm Nash to all parts of the compass, bar the Mumbles lighthouse, in hitting six sixes in an over.

Stradey Park also hosted an international match, in 1887, and 21 years later Llanelli defeated Australia, who were making their first tour. However, it was on 31 October, 1972, that Stradey added its most famous verse to Sospan Fach when the Scarlets, in their centenary season and coached by Carwyn James, defeated the All Blacks: Llanelli 9 Seland Newydd 3 was the immortal message on the cauldron's little scoreboard.

When the game turned professional and the Scarlets went seriously into the red they were obliged to sell the ground to the WRU for £1.25m but the deal contained a buy-back clause. Within a 10-year period Llanelli could regain ownership for the selling price plus inflation.

"It was one of our better clauses,'' said Joanna Masters, the club's commercial director. The plan is that Llanelli will pay the WRU about £1.4m, sell Stradey Park for up to £20m and move into a £25m stadium on a 52-acre site at Pemberton that is currently wasteland. The plot will be donated by Carmarthenshire County Council to a commercial developer who will bear the cost of a project which will also provide facilities, including an athletics track, for the community.

"Stradey Park has been a wonderful home and we all have fond memories of some huge occasions,'' said Gareth Jenkins, the Llanelli coach and a member of the side that beat the All Blacks. "But there's no doubt that if we are going to achieve out ambition of becoming one of the top teams in Europe we need the best modern facilities.''

From west Wales to the Midlands professional rugby, finally catching up with the excellent facilities established in France, has new grounds for optimism. At Welford Road recently a second-team game between Leicester and Northampton on a Monday evening drew a crowd of nearly 10,000. This time next year the Tigers expect to fill the Walkers Stadium, which has a capacity of 32,500, for a Premiership derby.

All that remains is for the venues to be christened with suitable names that in 50 years time will invoke memories as rich as those provided by Welford Road, St Helen's and Stradey Park.

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