/ 28 November 2006

Ireland bids fond farewell to ‘high altar of rugby’

It was cramped, often bitterly cold, and had a railway line running through it yet Ireland’s Lansdowne Road — the world’s oldest rugby union Test venue — will be much missed.

Ireland played their last Test at the Dublin stadium on Sunday, bidding the ”grand Old Lady” farewell in fine style with a crushing defeat over the visiting Pacific Islanders to cap a superb series that included wins over South Africa and Australia.

Green confetti rained down on the pitch and stands as the players took a lap of honour in typically chilly conditions. Despite the weather, the crowd stayed on to cheer their heroes and the venue that hosted Irish rugby for more than 100 years.

”Lansdowne Road, in my mind and in the minds of all the people who have ever been there to play or to cheer their teams on, will remain utterly unique, utterly Irish and utterly enriching and friendly,” former Ireland international and record Lions try scorer Tony O’Reilly told Reuters.

”It was and always will be the great high altar of rugby.”

Lansdowne Road, tucked behind rows of Victorian redbrick houses and less than 3km from Dublin’s city centre, hosted its first international rugby match in March 1878 when a visiting England side beat the Irish by two goals and one try to nil.

Standing room only

The Irish Rugby Football Union acquired the ground in 1904 and built the first stand in 1908. Though redeveloped and enlarged several times since then, Lansdowne Road had long been viewed as an inadequate venue for international sport.

Irish soccer, which has been played at Lansdowne Road since the 1970s, has been particularly short-changed: the home side never gets a 49 000 capacity crowd because world football’s governing body requires competitive internationals to be all-seating.

Lansdowne Road’s north and south stands are standing only.

In an era of professional rugby, Lansdowne Road retained a distinctly amateur flavour, with two small club houses at the corners of the grounds, and, to the amusement of visiting teams, a railway line running beneath one stand.

”The ground itself is so famous it would remind you of maybe Fenway Park in Boston,” former Ireland international Mick Quinn told rugby fans at the stadium recently.

”Just a haggard old wooden structure. Just the history of the ground and the two clubhouses in the corners, it gave you a special feeling — I just loved playing there.”

Railway line

Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox baseball team in the United States, is a similarly old, creaky stadium held in deep affection by fans.

Under the plans for the new Lansdowne Road, which have been approved but are still subject to an appeal, the old stadium will be replaced with a 50 000 all-seater venue — with all the seats, but not the pitch, under cover.

The railway line will still run under it.

It is due for completion by July 2009. In the meantime, Ireland’s national rugby and soccer teams will play at the Gaelic Athletic Association’s showcase, 80 000-seater venue Croke Park in north Dublin.

”Obviously people are sad about Lansdowne Road and moving on and obviously I’m the same having played here, but progression is what it’s all about,” said former number eight Victor Costello.

”If you look at the Irish team these days they’re not accepting mediocrity so neither should we.” – Reuters