After a fairly traumatic January and early February, having lost my Mum suddenly, half term arrived and was very welcome. I’d been due to interview Nigel Wray the Saracens Chairman during the week, he had to reschedule to the Friday morning. To say I had an immense day would be a total understatement! After a hugely interesting interview with Nigel he took me down to watch the Saracens boys train. Not only did I see how Saracens prepare for game day but I also had a chat with a few of the players and best of all got not 1 but 2 hugs from Schalk Brits! Now a few hours at Saracens alone would have made my day but I had a whole load more to come!
I’d been lucky enough to have a ticket for England v Ireland in my clutches. While watching France v Italy I thought I’d see whether I could get a ticket to watch Wales v France a few weeks later. I’m learning that it’s often easy to get a ticket for one; there are benefits to being Billy no Mates! A quick trip to the WRU website during the France game and I’d ordered myself a ticket for The Millennium! So, after thoroughly enjoyable few hours at Allianz Park I hit the road. The M4 was fairly kind to me and I checked into my hotel near Bristol in plenty of time. My satnav primed I headed to Cardiff, here’s a confession I found myself at the tolls for a bridge; I actually had no idea which one it was! I had to ask the guy I was paying! Turned out it was the original Severn Bridge; I can be such a girl at times! I’d paid to park on a drive but found the park & ride and decided that would be a safer bet, so took to the bus with a load of fellow rugby fans. The rain was tipping down as we got off the bus but we were of course heading for a stadium with the roof closed.
Both of the 6 Nations games I was going to were huge for the championship; home wins would turn things on their head. Now, rather than write match reports for two great games I’m going to take a different view and give my thoughts on the 2 venues. As you read bear in mind that I’m Essex born and bred and an England fan through and through.
My first visit to The Millennium stadium came in 2007 when I spent 2 days watching 6 rugby league games at the Magic Weekend. Those of you that have read my stuff before will know I’m a fairly unusual Essex girl who loves both codes of rugby. I’d say my ‘love affair’ with the home of Welsh rugby started that year. The Magic Weekend was repeated there in 2008 and 2011; one very noticeable thing was how slippery the pitch got as the day went on with the roof closed; made for some interesting rugby league matches! I’d always wanted to watch England play rugby union in Wales and the pre World Cup warm up game gave me the opportunity. A full stadium gave me my first taster of the experience that is watching Wales play rugby at home! I’ll describe that more as I talk about my most recent visit. My birthday generally falls during the 6 Nations and in 2012 the Wales v France game was actually on the day; kind of them to arrange that for me. Again it was easy to get tickets, this time I took a friend and we had a great time.
So, to explain experience; I was sat in the top tier for this years’ Wales v France game, unlike Twickenham I managed to climb the stairs without the need for oxygen! Always a good thing! I took my seat to discover I had a great view, I really believe there is no such thing as a bad seat at The Millennium. I had a lovely lady; Hayley, sat next to me who was there with her Dad, brother and brothers’ girlfriend, a real family affair. The atmosphere started to build and was helped along by a Welsh Male Voice choir singing amongst other songs, Delilah. To hear singing of this kind at a rugby match is a truly wonderful thing; oddly enough there was a very similar choir singing at the Gloucester v Saracens match in January. The roof being closed almost gives the feel of an indoor event, which in a way I guess it is. The piece de resistance for the pre-match was yet to come. The teams took to the pitch to huge applause and loud roars, lining up for the national anthems.
Now, my verdict on the French national anthem when I was at the England game at the Stade De France was that they were nearly as good as the Welsh. I had to reassess, the Welsh singing their national anthem in The Millennium stadium is a truly amazing thing, makes me wish I could sing in Welsh! The rendition sends a tingle down the spine! If it’s possible to have a 16th man I’d say the Welsh crowd are that for the boys in red. The Welsh had a big blow before the game started as Alun Wynn Jones was injured in the warm up; a lot was expected from the home crowd after a very disappointing performance against the Irish. The Welsh team came out with intent and played with the skill and determination we all know they’re capable of. They may well have been aided by the fact that the rubbish French team turned up to The Millennium!
A little more about the match experience, sat behind me were a group of older men, from their discussions during the game they were to a man passionate and knowledgeable. They even let me join in their conversation about how poor the scrummaging was during the game and at a high level in general without looking at me as if I had 2 heads! I mentioned to my neighbour Hayley that I really must make sure I only ever bought welsh cakes in Wales; she dug into her bag and produced 2 for me to take away with me! Breakfast sorted. The crowd at the game were there to watch the game, there was beer to be seen but unlike Twickenham people weren’t getting up every 5 minutes to go and buy alcohol! As the final whistle went Wales were victorious and back in the race; depending on the result at Twickenham the next day.
And so the 2nd chapter of my rugby weekend started with a drive up the M4 in the opposite direction; again the road was kind to me. I arrived in Twickenham in time for a civilised lunch. Now, my Twickenham experience started rather earlier than The Millennium, I’d say around about 1981 as I had a rugby playing boyfriend at that time. One of my earliest memories was seeing Serge Blanco playing for France against England. In recent years I’ve been to the ground as many times as I can, I’d say at least 10 times last season, it is clearly a place I love to watch rugby. Over the years I’ve even watched rugby league at Twickenham when the Challenge Cup Final between St Helens and Huddersfield was held there in 2006.
So, to make a comparison based on my 2 games in 2 days. The Millennium is basically in the middle of Cardiff a thriving and lively City; Twickenham is a walk away from a part of London which certainly has a few pubs and restaurants but is certainly no match for Cardiff. Having eaten lunch at one of my favourite places Patisserie Valerie I walked with my friend to the West Car Park where there was a large crowd watching the Italy v Scotland match. It was interesting and not unexpected that every move by the Italians was cheered and there was much disappointment when the Scots pulled off a last gasp victory. Time to move into the ground and find my seat; again in the upper tier; I was very relieved to find the escalators avoiding the embarrassment of huffing and puffing when I got to the top. Clearly Twickenham is a bigger stadium than The Millennium the crowd was about 10k bigger. My seat felt a lot further from the pitch but again I had a good view. As the seats around me filled the mix of people became plain, there seemed to be a fair few who knew little or nothing about the game. There were also others in rugby shirts who were perhaps rugby fans; it always seems to me that a lot of the Twickenham crowd aren’t week in, week out rugby fans. With the exception of the England game it seems to be much easier to get tickets for The Millennium; I wonder how many true rugby fans miss out to corporate crowds or occasional visitors at Twickenham.
I’ve been lucky enough to get to a fair few of the Autumn Internationals and was at the New Zealand game in November; I was sat at the end of a row and was constantly disturbed by people going for beer, chips and the inevitable toilet break. I think one guy missed a good 20 minutes of the 2nd half to queue for drink. Now I don’t drink but I never cease to be amazed that someone would pay £70 to watch rugby then spend so long not watching it. Back to my England v Ireland experience; the teams took to the pitch to huge cheers; for a second day in a row there was a lot at stake; Ireland were the only team with a chance of a Grand Slam and on the day the Triple Crown. The Irish team is made up of players from both Northern Ireland and the Republic; this means there is no national anthem to be sung; instead they sang the rousing Ireland’s Call. I must get to Dublin to hear this sung in Ireland I imagine it’s amazing and possibly up there with the Welsh anthem. I’m now going to make myself unpopular I suspect; God Save Our Queen was up next. Laura Wright, without a doubt a beautiful woman and talented singer sang with the crowd. The English national anthem starts at a disadvantage with me, I think it’s a boring dirge, a stadium largely full of men singing along with an opera singer is never really a plan. Everyone sang, but I can honestly say of all the anthems I’ve heard at a 6 Nations game it is the least impressive. (Please don’t tell the Queen!).
As far as the game was concerned, it was immense, a very close game with both teams clearly intent on a win, England were deserved victors. In France the game lost by England Stuart Lancaster made several controversial substitutions, taking Danny Care, Billy Vunipola and Joe Marler off when they’d been performing at their very best. It was noticeable that subs weren’t made for the sake of it during the Ireland game. Personally it took me about 5 days to get my voice back into shape after all the shouting during the game. The 6 Nations is now wide open, any one of 4 teams has a chance to win; one of the biggest matches of the tournament takes place on Sunday 9th March when England play Wales at Twickenham. I haven’t managed to get my hands on a ticket for the game so will be watching a spot of rugby league at London Broncos instead. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for an England win; but bizarrely I suppose, I will be at The Millennium for Wales final game against Scotland and will be shouting for them to win.
As far as the 2 stadiums are concerned? For me the winner has to be The Millennium, I’d say it’s my favourite place to watch rugby; the atmosphere is second to none! My rugby weekend didn’t stop after the England game I spent the Sunday watching my team, Saracens, beat a hardy Exeter team! The ends to a perfect rugby filled weekend!