North London Allianz

What’s the newest professional sports stadium in England?  It may have escaped your notice that it is in North London, and is now the home to Saracens RFU.  We sent Mike Miles along to check out the Allianz Park.

Saracens have been making a load of hay out of the fact that their Allianz Park pitch can be used every day of the year rather than for eighty minutes once a fortnight. Indeed Chairman Nigel Wray was emphasising this same message in his programme notes. He also wrote of another plus. ..That, adjacent to the M1 and the North Circular it is “without doubt the best located ground in the country.”It may be for you Nigel, with your reserved parking space but for the rest of us mortals getting to your “home” presents a few more problems. Car parking around the ground is very limited, and all the streets in a mile radius have signs warning calcitrants not to park there on “event days”

The club’s web site lists various alternatives using public transport, but bearing in mind that this was a Sunday, and various bits of the tube and train network tend to be out of action then getting to Hendon provides an additional challenge, especially, if, like me you are travelling from west London. The best option appeared to be the Piccadilly line to Bounds Green, and then a 30-minute bus ride on the 221 to near the ground. My rule of thumb is that once you get near the ground you will just need to follow other fans. But there seemed to be a suspicious absence of them on this particular service, and just when doubts were beginning to set in the bus pulled up outside Copthall Sports Centre, and what the website describes as a five-minute walk to Allianz Park. And just in case you had the urge to wander the suburban streets of Hendon the club had laid on Olympic-style volunteers to point the unitiated in the right direction.

123The ground itself is a curious mixture of the new and permanent, like the East Stand, and the West Stand, where I was sitting in the front row. This is clearly designed to be removed when the season ends to let the athletes in. My feet were resting on the running track. I also uttered a quiet prayer of thanks to the weather gods. This part of the ground is not under cover, and had the game been played 24 hours earlier I would have been soaked.

Saracens were already top of the Premiership pile and a win today would have guaranteed them a home Premiership semi-final. They were up against a team in no danger of relegation and who hadn’t won away from home in an awful long time. Pre-match the other main topic of discussion was the planned minutes silence for Margaret Thatcher. “It was a question of respect, it wasn’t political” claimed Sarries’ chief executive Edward Griffiths,I’d like to think with some sense of irony. She had been the local M.P. and there didn’t appear to be much opposition among another sell-out crowd.

That Allianz Park’s synthetic surface suited Saracens was clear again .Worcester coach Richard Hill was not in favour, as “it creates a different type of game and I’m definitely a grass man.” The highlight was David Strettle’s 25-minute hat-trick, but it scored well for coach accessibility too judging from the short time it took Sarries’ head coach Mark McCall to reach the touchline. He had raced to remonstrate with the officials after his scrum-half Neil de Kock had been flattened by an unpunished high tackle.De Kock was led away to the wonderfully named “Concussion Bin.”

It is rare to see McCall so enraged, but that it took the incident to animate him testifies to his players’’ hunger after he made nine changes. The contest was as good as over before Josh Drauniniu crossed for Worcester after half an hour. Chris Ashton finally got on the score sheet with a late try, but by then the game had lost all its rhythm due to the inevitable onslaught of substitutes.  Saracens were worthy winners and are now odds on with the rugby betting companies to win the Aviva Premiership this season. To be honest I missed both his and Wray’s try in injury time. I was already embarking on the long trek back to west London, rather than slipping into my car in the car park and hopping straight up the M1.

The referee is a flanker…

A very picturesque setting in Biarritz

Yes I know that technically the ball isn’t round, but sometimes we do like a bit of rugby too.

Some years ago I was the proud owner of a London Wasps season ticket.  Back in the day before the little Fullers came along, CMF (and even pre-CMF status) we lived in a nice pied a tierre in Notting Hill.  Just down the road London Wasps were in residence at QPR’s Loftus Road and season tickets were just £99.  We not only went to all of the home games but we went away too.  Not just England either.  Belfast, when CMF was 6 months pregnant to see Wasps beat Ulster on a cold cold night in the Heineken Cup.  Edinburgh in the torrential rain.  Stade Francais in Paris to see a Kenny Logan-inspired 35-0 win, and Biarritz in the summer sun for a pre-season friendly.

We were part of the club.  Lawrence Dallaglio was almost a neighbour and trophies were won almost every season.  What a team of characters too.  Paul Sampson (now Mr Kirsty Gallagher) and is lightning quick runs down the wing, the maverick Gareth Rees who used to favour American Football style passes across the pitch, Rob Henderson who used to chat up females in the crowd when the play was stopped, and Kenny Logan, CMF’s favourite.

But all good things come to an end, and when the club headed 30 miles west to High Wycombe, we headed 20 miles south east to our new home in the suburbs.  And this therefore meant an extra 100 miles (assuming we went straight through the centre of London) to travel to every home game.  All of a sudden our £99 season tickets became £350 ones in Buckinghamshire and it simply wasn’t worth the hassle.  The parking problem at the ground was bad 3 years ago and public transport laughable thanks to constant weekend engineering works on the rails and non-existent buses at the far end.  So we simply gave them up.  At the time Wasps were European Champions and so there was no better time to give up when we were at the top of our game.

I’ve been to a few games since, and even worked at a few, including the highlight of standing in the middle of the pitch at Twickenham trying to keep up a 20 foot replica of Big Ben in front of 50,000 people, or incorrectly giving BBC TV the wrong person for the man of the match award at the 2007 European Shield Final (after all why would you give it to a player who was on a side that lost 87-3???) but that is another story.

Not cold at all in the upper tier

So why go back now?  Well for a couple of reasons actually.  CMF loves rugby.  What is it with women and rugby?  Sure I get the fact they are big blokes squeezed into little shorts, but have you seen Sebastian Chabal, Olivier Azam or Steve Borthwick recently?  Come on – get real…just say it like it is.  But after a bit of persuasion I agreed to buy some tickets for a game back at Wasps.

Secondly, Lolly wanted to come.  She loves the commercialisation of sport and so the prospect of music and events was certainly up her street and she was keen to go.  Littlest Fuller on the other hand did not have the same sporting tendencies and wasn’t keen to go.  We of course could bribe her and she would keep quiet but under protest.

Thirdly, it was cheap and we had a free weekend.  As all of us were going it fell within my criteria of “family time” and thus we could go.  £50 was not bad in my book for 4 decent tickets, although the club’s email offering seats for £30 for the four of us a few days prior to the game didn’t go down too well – black marks on your email marketing Wasps.

So we set off at lunchtime for the long trawl around the M25 and down the M40.  It was good to see when we joined the queue of traffic about a mile from junction 4 that nothing had been done to improve traffic flow to the ground.  We parked at the end of the valley road and paid £5 for the privilege along with the warning that we may not be able to get out of the car park until 45 minutes after the game.  Wasps have for years tried to increase the capacity of the ground (a ground that actually they do not own but are willing to pay for) but the stumbling block has always been this one road that provides access to the ground.  Without a second access road its no can do.

London Wasps 24 Gloucester 19 – Adams Park – Sunday 7th March 2010

Just to prove you have bad refs in rugby as well as football

“And today’s Guinness Man of The Match is….Referee Andrew Small”.  It is refreshing to see that football aren’t alone in having poor officials.  He was terrible, failing to spot what was going on at every break down, failing to penalise blatant foul play and then showing the only yellow card to a Wasps player who was yards away from the incident where he was supposed to have transgressed at.

But lets not take away anything from Wasps.  They put aside the disappointment of the crap performance at bottom of the table Leeds Carnegie to beat their mortal enemies Gloucester.  Does anyone actually in rugby like Gloucester?  Two of my favourite moments in the game have involved Gloucester.  First was a game twelve years ago at Kingsholm where we sat, on our hands, in the heart of the Gloucester fans as prop Will Green bulldozed over the line in injury time to give Wasps a 13-12 win.  The home fans went wild, accusing the Wasps players of insulting them and basically acting as spoilt brats.  A very pleasing walk back to the car that day I can assure you.  The second came in 2003.  Gloucester had dominated the league for the whole season only for Wasps to totally outplay them in the Play Off final at Twickenham by 39 points to 3.

Watching the world sail by

But enough of my moaning.  Lets move onto the game.  Wasps, missing their England Internationals rested Danny Cipriani, the spoilt brat of English rugby who is off to Australia in the summer and went with Dave Walder at number 10.  And what a decision by Director of Rugby Tony Hanks as the former Jonny Wilkinson understudy contributed 19 points on the day, including 16 points in the first half, which Wasps positive play dominated.  Their first try came when Walder burst through the Gloucester line after some sustained pressure.  Whilst Wasps rarely threatened the Gloucester line in the first forty minutes, the same had to be said about the away team’s forays into the Wasps 22.

Half time came and I remembered back to the good old days at Loftus Road where the club used to pick three people out of the crowd, give them a broom to run around three times and then try and kick a penalty over the bar.  Classic stuff especially when it was wet and muddy and they had shiny shoes on.  But today its all more “corporate” and a quiz between a squad member and a fan was hardly entertaining for the crowd.  In fact it just brought home how cold it was sitting high up in the Frank Adams stand.

First line out and first turnover

Gloucester put up more of a fight in the second half, thanks to some more bizarre decisions from our friend from the RFU and when Mike “My girlfriends Nan is the most famous woman in the world” Tindall went over and the try was converted, the scores were level with twenty minutes to play.  But never fear when Walder is near as he put the Wasps noses in front again before winger David Lemi went over to put the game safe for the Wasps.

An important win for Wasps in their first for a play off spot and a return to the Heineken Cup, especially as Saracens had fallen under the spell of Leeds too.  And then I realised why I use to love the game so much.  Everyone wanted to enjoy the game.  There was no nastiness between the fans, and home and away supporters mingled freely.  We headed back to the car and headed back east.  And then I remembered why I stopped coming.  Bloody Sunday drivers.  Everywhere.  M25, M4, A40, A406 all blocked at some point by accidents and breakdowns meaning the journey home was over two hours.  Never go back they say – I did but got home late as a reason.