First published in Rugby League World, Issue 365 (Sept 2011) when London Broncos were still known as Harlequins RL.
Ground: Twickenham Stoop
Game: v Wakefield Trinity Wildcats
Date: Sat 18 June 2011
I have experienced thrilling afternoons at The Stoop, when the sun has shone, the game has been set alight and the beer has flowed. I have also been there when the gloomy weather has cast a cloud over blocks of empty grey seats, the home side has given a tiny crowd nothing to get excited about, and the away fans have moaned about everything from the price of a pint to the touch judge’s inertia. Wakefield’s visit in Round 18 was a mixture of both as two of Super League’s strugglers clashed, Quins suffering 13 games without a win and Trinity coming south after shocking the league leaders Huddersfield a week earlier.
Being London’s Super League club is a huge challenge. Being at The Stoop means Quins are on the rugby union corridor that leads from Richmond to Cornwall. No professional rugby club plays in the city itself: The Stoop is a 10 mile drag south-west of central London, making it a painful slog for all those fans who live to the north or east. It’s easily reached via the M25 and M3, but for away fans coming down the M1 it’s another hour’s slog around the western edge of London. Trains run regularly from Waterloo and the station is only a ten minute walk from the station but it still makes The Stoop a lengthy trip for all but south-west Londoners.
Twickenham is cut in half by the A316 dual-carriageway, with the RFU’s concrete behemoth cut adrift from the rest of the ‘village’, making street parking nigh-on impossible. Parking is available in three neighbouring car parks. Most drivers opt for Richmond College or the Rosebine Car Park either side of the ground, where a small, unmade club car park is being resurfaced and is only available to season ticket-holders and club guests anyway. At a fiver a car, there needs to be more than one of you to make it worthwhile.
The music is blasting out and the sun is shining – even if the approach roads are flooded by a lunchtime monsoon. There is an upbeat feel about the day, despite a small crowd trickling in to see two losing teams. As I enter the ground, I’m met by the Quins Foundation development staff on a bike machine, trying to raise money for their ride to Perpignan. When I wander past 20 minutes later, Quins first team squad members David Williams and Jason Golden are standing next to it looking bored. I don’t think a career as a ‘chugger’ beckons for either player.
With four modern stands, three of them built since London Broncos first played here 15 years ago, The Stoop is basically a new stadium. The colourful seats are comfortable enough with unobstructed views and almost all are covered (although being in the shade made a third layer of clothes necessary by half-time on a mid-June afternoon!). But the low trajectory makes views of the far side difficult. That’s not helped at all in the Etihad Stand where the front row of seats are 20 yards from the touchline. Mind you, even from there, the sight of Wakefield’s David and Goliath duo Jarrad Hickey and Gareth Moore is hilarious. Wayne McDonald and Rob Burrow eat your heart out!
It could be argued that getting 3,000 to The Stoop is a reasonable achievement given the club’s past and compared to attendances at far more historic clubs in the north and those of other sports in the capital. However, if Quins are not playing well, it can make for a desperate atmosphere. This victory was just their second at home this season in eight attempts, only their ninth victory in their last 25 home games. Despite only about 200 Wakefield making the trip, it’s noisy as the two Lukes – Gale and Dorn – tear a strangely lacklustre Wakefield to shreds and the home side go 28-0 up; the Quins regulars near me move from a state of shock to one of jubilation. The devoted belt out “Luke Dorn’s magic, he wears a magic hat” and “Stand up for the Harlequins” and high fives are exchanged all round. Opening up the West Stand again makes a far better backdrop too, although having only one of the three club shops open was a sad reflection on demand.
London’s Super League club has spent 10 of the last 16 years playing here, most of them in the multi-coloured quartered jerseys of the Quins brand, however there is only one area of The Stoop dedicated to its Rugby League tenants. A row of framed Broncos and Quins shirts hangs in one corner of the King’s Bar above a club timeline on the wall. The number of home fans wearing old Broncos gear has understandably reduced since they returned to Twickenham in 2006 as Harlequins (most of it must have fallen apart by now) but so have the Quins rugby union shirts. There are a sprinkling of cross-coders but interest has now waned and change is in the air. Instead I notice a myriad display of XIII devotion: the more obscure the Rugby League item the better. We are in missionary territory here and these are the converted.
Quins are doing their utmost with a tiny marketing budget to draw a crowd to The Stoop. There was a 2 for 1 offer in advance for this game, while Quins have been giving away thousands of tickets via the Evening Standard for games this season. It brought a few hundred extra in against Castleford and a thousand or so more than usual turned up for the Family Day against Bradford Bulls. Their ‘Fab 4 For £40’ offer of a ticket for each of the last four home games is hard to beat. The 68 page matchday programme, edited by The Observer’s Dave Lawrenson and featuring 11 pages on the visitors, is equally impressive. Local radio station BBC London 94.9 based their sports show at the ground all afternoon – a great example of the media vacuum football leaves on a few precious summer Saturday afternoons, though sadly at the same time as the region’s amateur players are in action elsewhere.
Sports marketing rule number 1: If the game’s no good the punters still need to have a great time. Quins understand that but you get the feeling they are limited by the purse-strings. Thus results a painful experience. Apart from the music, the pre-match entertainment consisted of the pre-pubescent League 49ers cheerleading squad dancing in front of the Etihad Stand for a few minutes. I have seen some fine acts at The Stoop but they tend to save them up for special occasions. Face-painting, a bouncy castle and puggle stick bouts (I am told) went down a storm in the Kidzone, and the covers band in the King’s Bar afterwards couldn’t be faulted. They opened with a rip-snorting version of Adele’s Rolling In The Deep but were still peripheral to the beer drinking as Quins fans savoured that euphoric victory sensation.
PLAYER INTERACTION 8/10
As we stood by the edge of the pitch in the post-match sunshine, nursing a cold drink and watching the players emerge one by one from the tunnel and walk across the pitch (no-one was going to tell Michael Korkidas that there had to be a better way of getting a small case across a bumpy pitch than trying to pull it on its tiny wheels), a Quins fan wondered: “In what other sport can you mix with the players like this?” His kids were interrupting their game of catch on the pitch to ask for autographs, each player obliging and swapping small talk, victors and defeated alike. Access to top class players is one of Rugby League’s unique selling points. Any football-loving mates I’ve ever taken to a game have been amazed by it. And at The Stoop it’s as good as anywhere. After they’ve eaten in the player’s lounge, the screens are drawn back and the players join supporters in the King’s Bar.
VALUE FOR MONEY 7/10
Wealthier fans and/or those wanting to make a financial gesture of support to the club can pay £25 for a Gold seat in the middle of the Etihad Stand but for only £15 you can sit just a few yards away or behind the sticks in the temporary North Stand, where the away fans congregate. Juniors can get in for a fiver, OAPs and Students just £10. You have to pay an extra £3 to buy a ticket online and a further £3 to use a credit card. Bonkers.
There were catering vans at either end of the Etihad Stand. The girl serving Wakefield fans at the British Burger stall was “surprised to see so many people suddenly”, and this was at half-time. The prices must put a few potential customers off. A quarter-pounder was £3.70, a half-pounder £5.00. Add 30p or 50p more if you wanted cheese. Hot Dogs were £4.00, a humble portion of ‘Steakhouse’ chips £2.50. It was even worse at the south-east corner where a 4oz burger would cost you an astonishing £5.50: that will take some beating for Super League’s costliest snack. An alternative was the pre-match meal in the Players Lounge (Adults £9.50, Children £5.50) where fans were entertained by a compere who was interviewing Quins reserve Lamont Bryan as I walked past.
One of The Stoop’s biggest attractions is the King’s Bar under the Etihad Stand. As both Quins clubs are sponsored by IPA, the Greene King brand is everywhere but sadly, their cask IPA was unavailable this time. It has previously gone down a storm with your intrepid reporter. A too-cold IPA Smooth and most of the lagers were £3.50 a pint, pretty reasonable when you consider it would cost you the same in most of Twickenham’s pubs. Overall, as long as you don’t plan to eat and drink all day there, The Stoop is competitively priced.
As I drove back into central London, I pulled over by the Thames at Chiswick to have a look at one of London RL’s former homes, the Polytechnic Stadium. The 1930s cantilever stand restored by the supporters is now derelict, the pitch overgrown and the banking demolished. It is one of our game’s ghost grounds. As I sat there trying to envisage it hosting the likes Wakefield, Bradford and Hull KR in the late 80s, I listened to BBC London listeners phoning in to discuss the potential name change from Harlequins RL. They have come a long way from Chiswick to The Stoop but there may be another place to call home soon. In the meantime, The Stoop will do.
Based on what it would cost an average fan for a no-frills visit: one ticket, pre-match pint, half-time snack.
(marks out of 10)
Value for Money 7