London Irish turn down move to Picketts Lock

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The Independent Online

London Irish, one of the best-supported clubs in the Zurich Premiership if not one of the highest achieving, have flatly rejected overtures from the developers of the contentious Picketts Lock site in the north-east of the capital. The developers are keen to attract big-time rugby interest as a means of underpinning their plan to build a national track-and-field stadium capable of hosting the World Athletics Championships in 2005. The Exiles agreed a seven-year extension to their tenancy agreement at Reading's Madejski Stadium at the end of last season and intend to stay put.

London Irish, one of the best-supported clubs in the Zurich Premiership if not one of the highest achieving, have flatly rejected overtures from the developers of the contentious Picketts Lock site in the north-east of the capital. The developers are keen to attract big-time rugby interest as a means of underpinning their plan to build a national track-and-field stadium capable of hosting the World Athletics Championships in 2005. The Exiles agreed a seven-year extension to their tenancy agreement at Reading's Madejski Stadium at the end of last season and intend to stay put.

However, two élite clubs with roots in north London – Saracens, who now play at Watford's Vicarage Road venue, and Wasps, who operate out of Queen's Park Rangers' Loftus Road stadium – are being touted as possible partners in the £95m Picketts Lock project.

"We have been in discussions with two organisations, other than UK Athletics, and while we are unable to divulge the names of the two parties, they are both professional rugby clubs," said Peter Warren of Lee Valley Park Authority, the development company. Warren added that Patrick Carter, whose government-sponsored report into the Picketts Lock proposal is due to be delivered in the next few days, had been informed of the negotiations. The developers need a second "anchor tenant" to join UK Athletics if they are to meet the anticipated £1m-a-year running costs and persuade Sport England to reconsider its refusal to back the project with a £67m Lottery grant.

Saracens, who once played in nearby Southgate, would view the Picketts Lock option with some sympathy given their roots in the area, but the move to Watford has paid dividends in recent seasons. Indeed, they have created a new rugby audience in the town – an audience enthusiastic enough to set a record Premiership attendance of more than 19,000 for a top-of-the-table match, with Newcastle in 1998. Wasps, on the other hand, face an uncertain future in Shepherd's Bush and might be more tempted by a move back to their old north London heartland.

As things stand, though, the 1997 English champions will play their rugby at Loftus Road for the forseeable future. And when they run out to face Saracens on Sunday in the opening game of the new campaign, they will unveil a new captain: the former Bristol and Cambridge University centre Mark Denney, who replaces the injured Lawrence Dallaglio at the control panel. "It had to be someone the players respect, who naturally earns his place in the squad and who will be able to get on well with Lawrence when he returns," explained Nigel Melville, the club's director of rugby.

In the West Country, the former England and Lions hooker Mark Regan has agreed a new three-year deal with Bath and is likely to remain at the Recreation Ground for the rest of his career. Regan underwent knee surgery during the summer, but is available for Sunday's game with Leeds at Headingley.

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