Gloucester Rugby 14 Connacht 7 (3rd April 2015)
You can’t beat a city centre ground. Maybe I feel it more keenly than most, usually visiting the Madejski Stadium in Reading, stuck out in Retail Park land, feeling like an abutment to the M4 rather than part of the town. There’s just an additional joy about be able to visit somewhere like Gloucester, park within walking distance of both the stadium and the city centre, have a walk round the cathedral and the prettier bits of the city centre, have a pre-match beer in a city centre pub, before strolling to the ground – stopping off for some chips from a timber-framed “Ye Olde Restaurant and Fish Shoppe”.
OK, the inside of the chip shop (or shoppe if you must) didn’t exactly exude medieval charm, and the pub must have been Gloucester’s warmest and most humid pub, just excessive clothing and a few birch twigs away from being sauna like, but it rather beats stopping at a burger van overlooking an arterial road.
It was good to visit for a night game too, as Gloucester’s Kingsholm also has the good taste to have four corner floodlight pylons, casting a glow over the sky, and acting like beacons, a clarion call to the red and white wearing masses.
I could have reasons to dislike Gloucester. Post Hillsborough, they allowed a terraced section of their ground to be used for an episode of hospital drama “Casualty”, where a quite ludicrous terrace disaster took place as a result of some angry young men causing panic after openly swigging from a bottle of vodka. That Hillsborough could inspire ideas for a show just a year later was pretty crass in itself, but the implication between drunken fans and the disaster was awful.
Gloucester also refused to let Gloucester City FC share Kingsholm, even temporarily, after their ground was wrecked by 8 foot high floods in 2007. In truth Gloucester City wouldn’t really have been able to offer Gloucester RFC much in return, so it might just have been impractical, but it did seem mean. And Gloucester City are still homeless, with a vandalised and overgrown ground they can’t return to, eight years later.
Despite those issue, it’s a ground I’ve always fancied visiting. Even when I didn’t like rugby, I quite fancied going there, as it just looks a classic ground.
Three sides are relatively new. Newest, and biggest by far, is the new main stand, holding 7500. It’s a double-decker, with the top tier reserved just for executive boxes. Unusually for a new stand, this 2nd deck is supported by no fewer than eight pillars, blocking views for around half the people in stand. At least with rugby that’s not quite so bad, as the play is spread across the whole pitch. A post in front of the goal is not remotely as annoying as it is for football.
There are more executive boxes – paying top division salaries is just as important here as it is for football – round the corner, behind the west goal. Behind an open terrace, a two-storey executive box stand rises up, filling the end much better than the open terrace would have. This was the cheapest part of the ground – the terrace at least, not the boxes – although with the weather forecast being dodgy, it was something of a gamble for the sake of a £5 saving.
The extra £5 would get you a place in “The Shed”, the most famous part of Gloucester’s ground, and perhaps the most famous stand in rugby union in the UK. Compared to some of the big old football terraces of the past it really isn’t all that special, but in a post-Hillsborough world, a packed old terrace is a sight you rarely see any more. A full terrace just looks much bigger somehow, and infinitely more atmospheric, than it would do if still full, but seated.
On TV The Shed looks straight, but in person you can see how it’s cranked in the middle, with one half following the line of the back wall of the gardens behind, rather than the pitch. At the far end it even curves round the corner slightly. They must be a traditional bunch in Gloucester. They successfully campaigned against The Shed being converted to seating, and if you see any old photographs of it, they clearly decided to rebuild the roof to look exactly as it did 50 years ago or so.
The last stand, the end I’d be sat at the back of, was the JS Stand, another relatively recent addition. Holding about 2800, it has a look somewhere between temporary and permanent, with the tunnel-like corrugated-steel concourse feeling like walking through a tunnel of packing crates on a container ship. The view, if you can ignore the pillars a budget build invariably has, is good though, especially from way back in Row Z where I was. The stand is actually very much like the North Stand at Harlequins where I usually watch rugby (even if the back row there only goes back to Row W) so I almost felt at home. If only the home team were to overthrow an easy pass or two, it’d be complete.
Gloucester, who’ve finished top of the premier league three times (but only won the title once thanks to the introduction of the play-off system) are a few years into a “disappointing” spell which has seem them marooned in lower mid-table despite the odd pre-season promise. They went into this game 9th in the premiership, but also rated as odds on to beat Connacht from Northwest Ireland in the quarter-final of the European Challenge Cup – European rugby’s little brother to the European Champion Cup.
It was a bit of a strange game. Not only was it 0-0 after 20 minutes, but there’d not even been a kick at goal in all that time either. It wasn’t dull though. It was just a case of both teams going through a full repertoire of ways of blowing a chance of scoring a try when one looked likely. Connacht’s speciality was a bad pass/catch combination when a clean take would have made a try odd on.
Despite the stalemate, Gloucester did look to have that little more threat about them, and so it proved. In the 21st minute, a dummy on the half-way line was enough to break through the main Connacht defence. A couple of passes then took the ball past the outnumbered Connacht back line, for a try under the posts.
With the try converted, Gloucester took just 10 minutes to double the lead. A ball from a Gloucester scrum 20 yards out was poked forward, and the unpredictable bounce was picked up by Gloucester, to run in for the 2nd try.
It took until around 10 minutes into the 2nd half for the first (and indeed only) kick at goal of the game It went to Gloucester, for a chance of a 17-0 lead that would probably seal the game. Out on the right, it wasn’t the ideal angle for the right-footed kicker, and only those badly position started to cheer the kick as it looped through the air, falling wide of the posts.
It gave Connacht a bit of impetus that they really needed, as they were offering very little to cheer the hundreds of green-clad fans who’d travelled over to support their team. A spell of pressure was rewarded with a penalty try, bringing the score back to 14-7, rejuvenating enough to have one crutch-wielding Connacht fan to stand unaided.
That was as good as it got for them though. As they had done for most of the game, the well-drilled defences repelled all attacks, and the clock ticked down to herald a well-deserved semi-final place for Gloucester, when they’d again be at home.
With both teams walking round the pitch to applaud the fans after the whistle, the ground was slow to empty. It also gave me a chance to walk through The Shed, and not purely because my car was parked over in that direction. A different sport it may be, but it did remind me of when football was like this, with the passion provided by the enthusiasm of the crown, not a PA guy with a playlist, and the fans stood huddled together, a crowd rather than an audience.
Football fans might be a little shocked to be presented with a £30 matchday terrace admission price, as Shed (ir)regulars are, but it would be nice to have the chance, along with all the other of Kingsholm’s benefits. If you can appreciate the oval ball game as well as the round one, this is how all grounds should be.