I walked through this arch tonight to watch a rugby match for the first time since the summer of 2009. That year the Blues moved to a new shared ground out in Leckworth with Cardiff City Football Club and the spiritual home of Welsh Rugby was lost to first division rugby. Initially the move seemed to work as crowds went up, although that was on the back of reaching the semi-final of the Heineken Cup and winning the Amlin Cup on one memorable day in Marseille the following year. Subsequently audiences have dropped to crisis levels. A few years back we had to borrow the Millennium Stadium for an early Heineken Pool match against Gloucester, this year we could not scrape ten thousand for the final match of the pool where victory would guarantee a quarter final place. Some of this is down to performance, some to the recession but I (and many others as evidenced tonight) feel that the loss of a traditional home, in the city centre is also a major factor. Tradition is important in rugby as in many things and that sense of continuity with the past (the Cynefin) cannot be lost with impunity.
Now when I first went to the Arms Park it was shared with the Welsh National Team and the physical ground of the current Arms Park was the home of Glamorgan Cricket Team. The layout is shown to the right and I still remember my first game here I stood on the terraces with my cousin Peter watching a match against Liverpool who back in those days had a good side with the English winger Slemen their star. Most Cardiff games then were against English Clubs which always added a degree of zest to the occasion and also increased away support. To drive or train to Cardiff from the Midlands or the South-West was easy, to fly down from Scotland or across the Irish Sea is a more problematic affair. I also watched my first cricket match here: Glamorgan against the touring Australians. I sat near the river with a new green score book bought to keep me occupied. Next door in a earlier period my mother, as a teenage spectator tore a boot lace from the then Welsh fly half at the end of match; my Grandfather, who I only knew through my mother's stories, spent his leisure time here. In time I brought my son to his first event match, in continuity with my past.
The building of the Millennium Stadium meant that the physical structure of the site changed. Glamorgan Cricket moved a short walk up the River Taff to Sophia Gardens, Cardiff RfC shifted to the cricket pitch and the current Millennium Stadium was built in time to host the 1999 World Cup. There was a sense of continuity around that, it was not major disruption. Matches then were always played on a Saturday at 1500 (or 3pm in old time) and standing room on the terraces was cheap. As you could afford it you moved to seating in the stands or maybe those new fangled hospitality boxes that were opened up on the banks of the Taff. Before the match you had a drink in a city centre pub, ate in any one of many establishments. You could do some shopping, or leave those members of the family who were not rugby fans to carry on in town. At the end of the match the crowd spilled out on to the streets of the capital. Saturday and rugby at the Arms Park were a ritual part of the stability of life.
With the move to Leckworth all of that changed. Now one had to drive to the ground or get the bus out from the centre. That has some very practical implications for those of us coming down by train for evening matches (now all to frequent to feed television audiences) as the ten minute walk from the stadium to the station allowed you to catch the last train east. But to queue for the bus, then walk from Westgate street meant that public transport was not possible. There are no pubs by the new stadium (well there is one, but nothing like the richness of the City Centre). No where to eat but a concrete McDonalds, a plastic Subway and a Marks and Spencer supermarket. You now simply go to a rugby match (or don't in too many cases); before the rugby match was a part of a whole social process. We now have an all seater stadium so the experience of the terraces (and the lower price) is lost. The move challenged loyalty; I drive 90 minutes there and back to support the Blues most weekends they play at home. I have to deal with the mess of not knowing when games will be held until a few weeks before given the late determination of television schedules, I pay a lot of money every year for two season tickets. I will stay loyal, but the experience is far less, far more difficult, far too unstructured.
The diversity of experience offered by a city centre location is and was important. Rugby is a family affair, unlike Soccer matches, home and away fans do not have to be separated, we mix, we banter, we talk about shared passion. A rugby ground has to be a physical part of the centre of a community in order to attract that community. Tonight we went back to that place which we had lost. People poured into the grounds from the surrounding pubs (as we will on Sunday in larger numbers for the international match). Cardiff Rugby Club was packed to the brim with people and with memories. Pictures of the Cardiff RFC contributions to the Welsh Teams of the 70s on the wall. The old caps off instruction from the guardians at the door was a surprise but then remembered. There was a real sense of belonging and critically of believing. The atmosphere created by the crowd during the match was greater than that created by the players (it was a victory but a poorly executed one and they really did not step up to the occasion). One felt part of something, rather than an isolated figure in a windswept half empty stadium.
Of course its not the only issue. 2003 saw the end of valleys sides at the top tier, another a mistake. OK it was the big city clubs such as Cardiff who stole the best players from Ponty and Bridgend, but they got their own back often enough at the Arms Park with fervent support, and the house of pain at Ponty deserved its name. There is talk of development sides and central contracts, following the Irish model which is attractive as an idea. Three main, properly funded teams with the key players on central contracts. Development sides at Newport and the Valleys would create some of that atmosphere of rugby as a means of situating culture. God, last night we even sang again, something that is rare at the City stadium. We need to recognise that the idea of Cynefin is critical to welsh culture and to welsh rugby, and return to that place of belonging ….
I may buy this T-Shirt as its a great slogan. As it happens I was ...