I regret I cannot join with my colleagues in the rugby-writing trade, or most of them - Frank Keating is the only exception I know - in praising the RFU's new construction. "Magnificent modern stadium" is the phrase most commonly brought into play. Well, it may be modern, and it is undoubtedly a stadium, but magnificent it most certainly is not.
The fundamental trouble is simple. It possesses no atmosphere. With a capacity of 71,000 (74,000 if boxes are included) it is still a dead sort of place.
This is a characteristic which modern arenas often possess, even when they have nothing to do with sport. In the autumn I attend the conferences of the political parties. The Opera House, Blackpool, and the Pavilion, Scarborough, 19th century buildings both, have an atmosphere which is absent from the modern conference centres of Brighton, Bournemouth and elsewhere.
The reason why these new places lack atmosphere is the same as it is for Twickenham. There is no mystery about it. The action is too far away from the audience. This has an anaesthetising effect. There is no sense of the participation you still feel at a large football ground such as Highbury Stadium or a club rugby ground such as Stradey Park, Llanelli.
Twickenham has a further grievous fault. For not only is the banking of the seats insufficiently steep. Not only are the seats themselves too far removed from the pitch, so that from certain points the participants look like Subbuteo-sized rugby players. The stands have also been designed on the assumption that we enjoy a Mediterranean climate.
These great, open spaces would be admirable in Beziers, Montpellier or Narbonne. On a wet and windy January Saturday in Middlesex they are a less happy idea. Though television sets are provided, one for every two seats, in the press box, I should still prefer not to be soaked when the wind is in the wrong direction.
I have, I may say, no great nostalgia for the Twickenham of Obolensky's try or Louis Jones's debut for Wales against England. The ghosts of Wavell Wakefield and Adrian Stoop do not haunt me. The old ground clearly had to change. My regret is that the change was not better managed.
The Welsh Rugby Union did manage it at Cardiff. The passing of the old Arms Park was certainly not to be regretted. It seemed to be constructed largely of corrugated iron. The prudent spectator would hitch up his trousers a couple of inches to protect the bottoms from the urine which would flow copiously down the terraces like a Welsh mountain stream. He would, if really thoughtful, apply a coating of dubbin to his shoes beforehand for the same protective purpose.
Those days went when the WRU, inspired by its then treasurer, Kenneth Harris, reconstructed the Arms Park, with the National Stadium on one side and a pitch for the Cardiff club on the other. Harris and his colleagues succeeded both in removing the many inconveniences of the old ground and in preserving the old atmosphere - even though the singing may not be what it once was.
I may be biased, because I always enjoy my visits to Cardiff. The train service is good, the ground is only minutes' walk from the station and I invariably meet old friends. Whether I shall continue to enjoy my occasional expeditions is more doubtful.
Fortified by a grant from the Millennium Fund - so costing the Welsh National Opera its own grant for a new opera house - the stadium is to be entirely rebuilt on an axis turned by 90 degrees. In many years of writing about rugby, it is the greatest piece of vainglorious folly that I can remember.
The reason is supposed to be that, as Wales are hosts to the 1999 World Cup, a suitably grand stadium must be available for the Final. But what is wrong with the National Stadium as it is today? It holds 53,000. The new stadium will, it is planned, hold 75,000. Are 22,000 extra places really worth the complete destruction of an excellent stadium?
Not only do I foresee financial disaster on a colossal scale. Even if that is avoided, the WRU will no longer own its own ground, as it does today. For a majority holding will be taken by the South Glamorgan County Council. To allow that outcome, when the WRU will no longer be master of its own house, is folly of a high order.Reuse content