First published in Rugby League World, Issue 385 (May 2013)
Ground: Prince of Wales Stadium, Cheltenham
Game: Northern Rail Cup v South Wales Scorpions
Date: Sunday 10 March 2013
I was not the only league fan concerned for their viability even before they had started. Fellow expansionists were alarmed that, a couple for weeks before the big kick-off, the club had no website, their squad was a closely-guarded secret and it was not even advertised where they would play.
A university-based team in a semi-professional league is not unheard of: Loughborough and Hartpury are now high up rugby union’s ladder, while Team Bath pulled up some trees in the FA Cup before football realised they were unfairly advantaged. Australian Rugby League has respected clubs attached to academic institutions, something widespread in Aussie grade cricket, and plenty of Old Boys teams here have evolved into open clubs working their way up their sport’s competitive ladder. It is just something unusual in British Rugby League.
My only previous visits to Cheltenham have been to see Lancashire get stuffed one Sunday in the nineties and a romantic weekend in a posh hotel with Mrs Speccie a couple of years ago.
It is two days before the race festival begins and the town centre is draped in Racing Post banners and AA signs to the racecourse (unfortunately there are none to the Prince of Wales Stadium). The cream regency terraces abound, many with fabulous wrought iron railings like historic Brisbane, along the grand boulevards of this historic spa town. You will not confuse it with Featherstone.
Getting to Cheltenham is not the problem. A short drive along the A4019 from junction 10 of the M5, it is easily reached from the south-west, the west midlands and the north-west. Strangely, it is even closer – by about half an hour – to Yorkshire clubs than the Cumbrian clubs are. It’s less than 150 miles from Rochdale and Oldham, a two and a half hour drive.
Coming across the Cotswolds from Oxford on the A40, the rolling hills and dry stone walls remind me of crossing the West Riding coal fields en route to Belle Vue. Geographically, Cheltenham is more South-West Midlands than South-West, but the accent is most definitely West Country.
Finding the Prince of Wales Stadium is more of an issue. You need a sat-nav, a detailed map or a very knowledgeable local. I had none of the above. It has a disorientating road system to rival central Leeds. Half an hour of increasingly desperate driving around the edge of town, with no idea where I was on my limited map, led me to miss the kick off. I finally found the damned place: about a mile from the centre, on The Brewery side of town, off behind the Matalan on the inner ring road. Follow signs for the Recreation Centre – and turn right when you get to the T junction without any sign posts (I guessed left)! If you get to the University’s Francis Close Hall, you are pretty close. Bus 94U stops outside the ground and heads back into town at 27 minutes past every hour on a Sunday. Getting a taxi from town may be easier – it is also a short cab ride from Cheltenham Spa station which has trains to Birmingham, Cardiff and London.
There is a small stadium car park and a much bigger overflow one, either side of the access road that heads into a new housing development, pretentiously named ‘Circa Cheltenham’. Both are free and they are ample for the tiny crowds the All Golds are likely to attract. No club in Championship One is likely to bring more than a coachful of followers.
There are young stewards on each doorway, all presumably there as part of their university obligations. All are polite and seem either shy or bored, perhaps both. Some are also shivering as the temperature hovers a couple of degrees above zero all afternoon. It keeps trying to snow without success but the night is desperate to bring a wintery day to an early close. I count 94 spectators in the seats – including Wigan Warriors coach Shaun Wane, checking out his young hands on loan at Scorpions – and estimate 20 more hiding behind glass in the bar upstairs, meaning the official crowd of 113 is about as accurate as it gets. In other words, more folk are watching kids and amateur matches throughout the country than have paid to be here today, which must be worrying.
The Prince of Wales is a strange arena. Like Hunslet, Gateshead and Skolars, it is an athletics ground, but it is smaller and more intimate than all of those. I can imagine it being rather pleasant on a sunny summer’s afternoon. There is one stand with ten rows of comfortable plastic seats, the roof and breeze block walls wrapped in that weird yellow ochre, corrugated steel, unique to 1980s sports centres and industrial units. Opposite is an overgrown disused railway bank reminiscent of Fartown, with nothing behind the posts to our left but a path into a housing estate. To the right, the elevated road gives passers-by clear and free views of the action. At half-time, the visiting Scorpions – clad in lime green shirts which turn out to be handily luminous in the gathering gloom – climb up the steps to their dressing rooms, rather like the players had to at Odsal in bygone days. Upstairs in the rather sorry bar, dotted with CRFC notices, you get a great view of the game and can see the Cotswolds on the horizon.
A pattern emerges during the game: the All Golds have possession, try to break through, don’t quite manage it, and South Wales nip up the other end to score. This happens time and again until the game is won, the Scorpions’ Wigan contingent making the difference in what is a decent game. The PA announcer starts giving comments on the play but once it gets to 0-18 he gives up even telling us the scorers for a while. The electronic scoreboard opposite did that job. There are a couple of dozen Scorpions followers here, who make themselves heard at each score, but there is little noise in between. We can even hear the players. The scoreline is cruel on the home side until a late rally brings a couple of tries, which bring their supporters to life – most of them team-mates and fellow students by the looks of it. South Wales fling the ball around sufficiently to entertain this neutral spectator who has no allegiances today nor much knowledge of those playing.
Let’s face it: despite 1908 and all that, Cheltenham is not a Rugby League town. It does not even have much of an amateur RL past. But it is a vibrant, attractive place with a strong sports scene and a lot of students. Ironically, there clearly is a latent rugby union heritage here: the Northcroft Room upstairs has some tremendous yet dusty memorabilia from Cheltenham Tigers RFC’s past, including an amazing picture of the 1905 All Blacks playing in town. The union club moved to the PoW from the nearby Athletic Grounds in 1981 and no-one seems to have spent much time or money on the place since. I forgot to look for the plaque at the Athletic Grounds site commemorating Albert Baskerville’s All Golds inaugural series win over the Northern Union. Drat.
The All Golds’ arrival has been as low key as one left under the front door mat. There is no mention of the club in the dignified Bank House Wetherspoons I patronised pre-match, nor en route to the ground – and given that I drove down most roads in the town that is saying something. Signs at the ground are A4 sheets taped to the walls. They have neither Hemel’s history nor Oxford’s recruitment to boast of so perhaps they are wise to keep their counsel. Dubious proclamations like this one from the website are probably best avoided: ‘Witness the gladiators in action as the University of Gloucestershire All Golds take on the nation’s finest’. Most bizarrely, they play in a conservative navy and light blue kit rather than gold. By the way, at 35 letters and 11 syllables, do the University of Gloucestershire All Golds have the longest name in world Rugby League? It sees off Wakefield Trinity Wildcats by a streak.
VALUE FOR MONEY
Match tickets are £10 for adults and £6 concessions, season tickets (for 10 games) are £80 and £50. There were no programmes or merchandise on sale, which was a missed opportunity – I heard two Yorkshiremen at the bar bemoan the lack of any souvenir from their first visit – although team sheets were available if you knew who to ask. Draught Tetleys Smooth or Carlsberg was £3 a pint, tea and coffee a quid, and the only food was the poorly-patronised Mr Pork’s gazebo. He was selling burgers at £3 but I went for the pork roll with stuffing and apple sauce for £3.50 and was not disappointed. It was indeed ‘A Taste of Whole Hog Heaven’.
The quality of the Rugby League on show was sadly not reflected by the occasion surrounding it. I fear for UGAG, but then I feared for London Skolars and Gateshead too. As long as we are obsessed with calling something ‘professional’ when it is clearly not, we set these clubs up to fail. Championship One Rugby League is part-time, semi-pro, and very small scale, often smaller than amateur clubs. I worry how they can afford to pay the players anything and what will happen if and when the university pull their support. What the All Golds can do is build up the game’s image and reputation in Cheltenham and neighbouring Gloucester, and make it an appealing destination for potential players and fans to visit. It’s certainly worth consulting your diary and considering a weekend away there sometime this summer.