Last Saturday the Cardiff Blues headed out onto the road to face Newport Gwent Dragons away in the last match of the regular Guinness Pro12 season. Nothing odd about that, except instead of heading to Newport and Rodney Parade, the journey was to Caerphilly and the Constructaquote branded Virginia Park.
The background to that is one of poor planning, or what some may call incompetency, as NGD, Newport County FC and even Newport RFC ended up fixtured at home on the same day, that day being the end of their respective league seasons. With the football club having primary use of the ground written into their contract due to Football League rules, they played at Rodney Parade.
Therefore off we went to Caerphilly, the first time a top tier Cardiff side had played there since 2003, and the first time the now ‘Constructaquote Stadium’ has hosted any games above WRU Division Two for many years.
80 minutes of mainly scrums and lineouts later, the question on everyone’s lips was not one of ‘should NGD have won in the end?’, ‘should Cardiff Blues have got the bonus point?’ or ‘just how does Willis Halaholo sidestep everyone in his path?’. No, the big question being asked – ‘was the day a success?’.
The answer to that has a very different answer depending on who you ask. Caerphilly RFC, the WRU and the public facing side of NGD will say yes, in reality the answer was largely no.
Firstly, I’d like to say I have nothing against Caerphilly RFC as a club. They did fantastically to put on the whole event and deserve nothing but credit for their part in this whole saga.
However, despite their best efforts, Virginia Park is not a suitable venue for professional rugby. One gate, a few portaloos behind the West Stand, a temporary big screen that was a bit unreliable, a scoreboard that couldn’t be seen and a match clock blocked by photographers.
Worst of all was the view though. I was lucky enough to get to the ground early and bag a spot right on the barriers behind the posts. Others though were not so lucky (or very lucky due to the quality of the game), and stuck right behind other spectators, therefore having their view blocked. Even without a hindrance at my position I still had to re-watch the match on television to appreciate exactly what happened.
I could’ve stood on the North Terrace or sat in the East Stand for a better view, but having only approximately 2,500 fans being able to properly see the game is not good enough at professional level. I did pay less than tenner for a ticket though, and got a view worth less than a tenner, but this brings me onto another point.
Saturday’s match lost Newport Gwent Dragons money. It’s an unavoidable fact. Payments to get the ground up to scratch, payments for the operational side of the business to function out of Caerphilly, a lack of corporate facilities and, despite the ground being sold out, a lack of ticket sales, as we saw the lowest attendance for this fixture, all will result in a noticeable deficit in finances for this matchday.
So the ground and financial aspect of the day were negatives, but what of the pitch? Well it was far better than the beach currently in place at Dave Parade, that’s for certain. However, that didn’t stop Cardiff Blues raising concerns over the playing surface at the Constructaquote Stadium on both Friday and Saturday.
Due to the pitch being used for amateur rugby there is no watering system in place, causing an issue when a prolonged dry spell resulted in hard ground. The fire service and regular hosing was used and the game went ahead, but it was still noticeably arid during the game itself, as well as not completely flat.
Leaving all those issues behind though, the main reason the day was claimed to be a success was that, as the stadium announcer told us, ‘it took a game to the region’. Constructaquote followed this up by tweeting after the game that it was ‘brill (sic) to see so many people come to watch, who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity’.
Andy Howell repeated the ‘success’ mantra in WalesOnline, declaring the venture a ‘hit’ and a model for taking future fixtures around the region. Had the same crowd pitched up at Rodney Parade for what should be a massive derby fixture, the irony is that he would no doubt have reported it as further evidence for the failure of regional rugby
So how can Saturday be seen as a success? All the ‘experiment’ proved to me was how close Caerphilly was to Cardiff. It’s 19 minutes on the train from Caerphilly to Cardiff Central . From areas of North Cardiff the only public transport option to get to the city centre is the bus which takes, at best, 35 minutes, meaning it’s easier for those in Caerphilly to watch Cardiff Blues than some people living in Cardiff.
I’m well aware that Caerphilly is in the Gwent region, but that’s just another reason why the town debunks the regional myth, there are far more Cardiff Blues and Ospreys fans living there than NGD. People will support who they want, rather than who their postcode tells them to support.
What Constructaquote’s tweet should have said was ‘brill to see so many people come to watch, who wouldn’t normally be bothered enough’, and therein lies a major problem with the inception of regional rugby in Wales since 2003, professional rugby isn’t being offered to everyone on their own doorstep.
Those who are prepared to travel will do so, and we saw that on Saturday. The majority of the fans in the Northern section of the crowd were Cardiff Blues fans, and we made plenty of noise with different chants. There was ‘Cardiff’, ‘Blues’, and the old blue and black song. Something for everyone associated with the region.
However there are plenty of people living outside the City who have disenfranchised themselves as they feel entitled to professional rugby in their town or village. Taking away ‘Cardiff’ from the Blues won’t encourage masses to attend, they will find other excuses.
Simon Thomas tweeted asking any fans who would now buy Dragons season tickets as a result of the WRU removing the allegedly ‘toxic’ ‘Newport Gwent’ from the team name to come forward, and it got no response.
All we know is that dropping the City name, be it Newport or Cardiff, will lose a significant portion of the fan base, that is the only certainty here.
Saturday was a thoroughly enjoyable day out, but would I go again if Cardiff Blues played at Caerphilly next year? No I wouldn’t. Will it encourage a decent percentage of that crowd to go and watch pro rugby in Newport or Cardiff? No it won’t.
Therefore, ‘taking the region on the road’ was a failure for Newport Gwent Dragons, and a failure for regional rugby.