The virtual reality experience of rugby

Now I know what it is like to be Jason Leonard and be tickled by the nasal hairs of a scowling Welshman
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The Independent Online

The rucking and mauling at Twickenham on Saturday, as 20-odd stone of irresistible English force bore down on 20-odd stone of immovable Welsh object, was something to behold. And the scrummaging! Ye gods! Three hefty Englishmen were at one point lifted clean off their feet and, grunting, swearing and fighting for their equilibrium, were returned to earth at least 10 yards yonder. The ball? Bugger the ball. Actually, there wasn't a ball.

The rucking and mauling at Twickenham on Saturday, as 20-odd stone of irresistible English force bore down on 20-odd stone of immovable Welsh object, was something to behold. And the scrummaging! Ye gods! Three hefty Englishmen were at one point lifted clean off their feet and, grunting, swearing and fighting for their equilibrium, were returned to earth at least 10 yards yonder. The ball? Bugger the ball. Actually, there wasn't a ball.

It was 15 minutes before kick-off. We were just trying to get from the Invincibles Restaurant under the East Stand to our seats in the North Stand.

But let's be generous about that Twickenham scrum, which for a couple of minutes was a genuinely scary place to be. Let us not condemn the danger and discomfort. Let us instead salute the people who spent tens of millions rebuilding the national stadium for having the imagination to include, in the price of a £40 ticket, a virtual reality rugby international. Because now I know exactly what it is like to be Jason Leonard and to be tickled by the nasal hairs of a sweating, scowling Welshman - albeit, in my case, a Welshman wearing a black bomber jacket with an ailing daffodil in the lapel. And the virtual rugby experience didn't stop there. Inside the stadium there was even a line-out for us to join. A line out of the gents, round a corner and up some steps. Ah, the joys of the great British sporting occasion.

England's powerful performance went some way towards making amends, although it was a while before we could see it properly, some marketing wizard having decided to preface the match with a short firework display. Following the fireworks - which oddly enough we could barely see, possibly because it was broad daylight - a shroud of smoke settled stubbornly over the pitch. For nigh on 10 minutes it was like watching through cataracts. Coincidentally, this was the Welsh team's best phase. When the murk eventually lifted, England hit their stride, and I fancy I heard Dawson shouting to Wilkinson: "That's better, I can see you now!"

With a little less emphasis on pyrotechnics, and a little more emphasis on crowd comfort, Twickenham might yet be a pleasant place to spend a Saturday afternoon. On the other hand, you still have to get there. Instead of spending squillions on refurbishments, perhaps they should have relocated the home of English rugby somewhere more convenient, like an industrial estate just off a B-road out of Barrow-in-Furness. After last year's Calcutta Cup match, I spent well over an hour queuing at Twickenham Station, where the prevailing feeling was neatly summed up by loud choruses of "Baa!" and "Moo!" This time I reached the stadium by tube, minicab and foot, a 12-mile journey which took a shade under two hours.

So we English can crow as much as we like about beating the French in Paris, but to my mind the French are entitled to a far meatier boast - that they have a more accessible and more comfortable national stadium. I haven't yet been to the Stade de France, but my friends assure me that it puts both Twickenham and Wembley in the shade. The Wembley experience is another nightmare, acknowledged by Radio Five Live's clever advertising campaign: "We're on our way to Wembley [avoiding the Hanger Lane gyratory]." Indeed, while I never thought I would hear myself applauding Brent Council bureaucrats, it is absolutely right that the rebuilding of Wembley should wait until transport links are improved, although I've a feeling we'll see Alberto Tomba slaloming through hell before that happens.

In the meantime, someone should have a beseeching word with the EU transport commissioner, Neil Kinnock, and funnily enough I had the opportunity myself on Saturday. It wouldn't have been right on his day off, just after a 46-12 trouncing. But it could have been easily done, for the great man was in my party, greatly enjoying salad of smoked chicken with tabouleh served with roasted fennel and a chilli dressing, braised rib of beef with roasted root vegetables, green pistachio and honey cheesecake, and lots of fine wine, followed by the match, afternoon tea and plenty more bevy.

As someone who sees corporate hospitality as a dangerous beast greedily sucking the essence from the traditional spectating experience, I have to say that the green pistachio and honey cheesecake was delicious. And I am enormously grateful to my generous hosts, BBC Sport, not least for providing me with a dinky little radio tuned to Five Live, which just about survived the alarming mêlée between the Invincibles Restaurant and the North Stand, and more importantly gave me something to listen to on the interminable 12-mile journey home.

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