Our Red Rugby correspondents are lucky enough to be attending one or two matches during Rugby World Cup 2015. In a new feature, they tell us what the fan experience is like at #RWC2015. First up, the New Zealand v Argentina game at Wembley.
I meet my comrade for the day, Andy Mayes, on the Metropolitan Line platform of King’s Cross underground station. The first thing we realise is that we’re both wearing black. Neither of us are supporting New Zealand (or Argentina for that matter) but in our efforts to look as neutral as possible we have inadvertently transformed ourselves into die-hard All Blacks. Awkward. Even more so when I look down the platform and witness a sea of white and blue hoops. It seems that the Argentinians are out in their droves for this, the biggest game of Pool C. As we board the train, we’re greeted with more black shirts (the East London Kiwis are representing today) and in the thirty minutes we have until Wembley Park, Mayes and I discuss the game ahead.
That’s not strictly true. We spend most of the time laughing about the South Africa v Japan result from the day before and how we’ve been rubbing salt into the wounds of our respective Springbok friends for the last 24 hours. We then remember that both our teams (Wales and England) are in a ‘Pool of Death’ and laughter may be a little premature. We reminisce about the last World Cup games we went to, in 1999, long before we met. For Mayes, it was England’s ton-shaped trouncing of Tonga at Twickenham. For me, it was a series of matches at the Millennium Stadium starting with the opener (Wales v Argentina) and ending with that year’s Bronze Final between South Africa and New Zealand. We briefly chat about how the sport has changed since the last century and what we expect from the 2015 edition. We expect it to be big, bold and bolshy.
We aren’t wrong. As soon as we arrive at Wembley Park station and descend its steep steps, the stadium and Wembley Way sprawl out in front of us. The entire walk is decked-out in the colour pallet of Rugby World Cup 2015. Flags welcome you to ‘The World in Union’. Fans, of all nations, pose for photographs next to their respective teams’ shirt, all of which have been painted on the walls of the subway. For today’s two competing teams, the ultimate bit of branding: both the All Black and Argentina emblems are emblazoned on the side of the stadium itself so they can be seen by most of North West London. We’ve arrived early (to catch the Wales v Uruguay game) but the place is already buzzing. And here’s the thing: the noise is coming almost exclusively from Argentinean fans. We put it down to enthusiasm by the underdog, fully expecting the stadium itself to be a cauldron of both blue and black, and head on down Wembley Way towards the Fanzone that’s been erected in Wembley’s car park.
Oh dear. As we approach the Fanzone we’re greeted by two signs: one in bold, matrix-yellow saying ‘Fanzone: ticket holders only’ and another (a bit of white A4 being held on the end of a stick) saying ‘Fanzone full’. We’re immediately confused. When they say ‘ticket holders’ do they mean us (i.e. people with tickets to the game) or were there separate tickets for the Fanzone? We approach anyway (with caution) and find out that the ‘ticket holders’ are indeed us and the Fanzone is not full as the man with the stick suggested. Which immediately leads to the question ‘what is the point of the Fanzone?’. If it’s only available to people with tickets to the game, its nothing more than an extension of the stadium itself. It serves the same beers, the same food at the same prices. What about the fans who aren’t lucky enough to have a ticket but want to experience the atmosphere? Mayes and I decide to give the Fanzone a miss for two reasons: one, because its a bit pointless and, two, because our seats are located on Club Wembley level – the level which, on any other match day, houses the stadium’s hospitality seats and suites.
I say usually because, as this is not strictly a Club Wembley event, the level has been opened up to the masses. Whether you enter via the Club Wembley entrance (a red carpet affair with immaculately dressed staff) is down to what category of ticket you’ve bought…and even then it’s a bit of a lottery. Our numbers have come up on this occasion. As we ascend the escalators past a myriad of England football team memorabilia, we finally reach the gleaming expanse that is Club Wembley. I admit to Mayes that I’ve been here before, albeit it in a work capacity, and then I found it to be sterile and airport-like, lacking substance. Today though, as a fan, I immediately appreciate what it has to offer. It’s got proper sit-down bars and decent food outlets: things to make your pre-match much more comfortable than the usual scrums in the grey terraces below. We do a quick circuit to see what’s available before settling on a bar to watch the first game of the day. From the bar, we have a great view overlooking the rapidly emptying Fanzone as punters make their way inside. A few Heinekens later (it’s either that or Murphy’s due to exclusive RWC contracts) and we’re ready to take our seats. And what seats they are! Padded and on the front row of the middle tier with an unobstructed view. Could it get any better? Well, why not throw in a beer holder. That’s right, a beer holder! Amazing. I briefly have to ask an Argentina fan next to me whether the holder is mine or his but, that situation resolved, we sit back and take in the atmosphere.
The cacophony of noise is amazing and it’s all being generated by Argentina fans. Yes, there are plenty of All Blacks supporters but the ferocity and passion of those shouting for the Pumas is electric. I’ve been to a few Argentina matches in the past (most against Wales, one against the Lions) but this is something on another level. It makes me want to get on a plane to Buenos Aires next year to appreciate a home game. This must come mightily close to it. It’s a noise that continues throughout the build-up (including the new Haka), passed kick-off and well into the game. As Richie McCaw is sin-binned for only the third time in his test career, the jovial boos ring round Wembley. They’re only matched by Conrad Smith’s departure shortly after. The first half of the match (which concludes with Argentina in front on the scoreboard) is one of the most entertaining I’ve seen live for quite a while. The second half is less so, as the All Blacks crank up a gear or two and the Pumas drop a few golden passes. The Kiwis look comfortable in victory by the end but Argentina contribute to a hell of a game.
As we make our way out of the stadium and (very slowly) down Wembley Way to catch the next available tube, Mayes and I are in agreement – that was a great experience. So great in fact that we can’t help but feel it’s a real shame that Wembley will only host one further match in this World Cup (Ireland v Romania on September 27th). It made for a great venue to watch rugby and, given the passion and number of genuine fans present, proved to be a much bigger success than any of the games Saracens have bought there in the past. We find out later that the match had a record attendance for any Rugby World Cup game – over 89,000. As we leave the giant arch behind us, you can feel the stranglehold of Twickenham eeking the fans away from this modern cathedral of sport.
As we tuck into our Piri-Piri chicken at a well known chain restaurant near Euston, we’re left contemplating what could’ve been a greater role for Wembley in Rugby World Cup 2015. As for today, we’ve had an amazing time. Club Wembley played it’s part but, we’re agreed, we would hand that all in to hear that Argentinean support one more time. The greatest fans of this world of union? Quite possibly.
Onto the next one…