Nostalgia for vanished stadia runs deep (have you seen Gladiator?). But there are no ruins of the late Cardiff Arms Park. The legendary home of Welsh Rugby Union was demolished stone by stone so that the new Millennium Stadium could rise on the same ground between the banks of the Taff and Cardiff Castle. And rise it has, to shelter crowds of 80,000 under its retractable roof: not an empty symbol like the Dome; rather, an architectural statement that, in the third millennium AD, everything is different.
The old Arms Park was a temple to testosterone. Merely getting in was a rough contact sport, as thousands of supporters squeezed through a few narrow turnstiles. Finding a ladies room in that male maelstrom was harder than finding a creche in the Vatican. The Dynion (Gents) outnumbered the Merched (Ladies) by about 20 to one.
That was intended. The Arms Park – built in 1962 on a site used for rugby since 1884 – was a place for men to get away from women. As I heard one sonorous Welsh voice tell another in the post-match surge for the exit: “Know about the man who’s been married for 17 years and he’s bored? The wife comes home one night and says, ‘I’m into bondage now. Tie me to the bed and do anything you want.’ So he did, and went down the pub.”
Exactly. That was the Arms Park experience: 53,000 deliriously happy, singing, chanting men who would be nowhere else in the world; while, at home, their women waited in black lingerie with fantasies of how passion might be better spent.
So what was I doing there if I believed that the Arms Park was a blokes’ paradise? You may well ask. I am married to a Welshman and, for a special birthday some years back, I gave him two debentures to the Arms Park.
These debentures – a right to the privilege of buying tickets – did not, as I had thought, last for eternity. With the demolition of the old Arms Park, holders were left with shares of thin air. Legal contortions worthy of West Palm Beach County have yielded, in time, a right to nearly as good seats in the replacement arena, which opened last year. In many ways, the boast that it is the “World’s Greatest Rugby Stadium” is justified. The £120m-plus spent on the project has bought lifts, wheelchair access, multiple entry points, clearly marked gates and real food: baguettes and tuna wraps, where once you could not find a packet of crisps. At the old Arms Park, there were no facilities except toilets.
That is hardly the case now. With its grotesque overprovision of ladies’ loos and baby-changing rooms, the new place is a monument to political correctness, a possible permanent home for world conferences on the status of women. During Saturday’s Wales v Samoa match, I personally inspected three beautifully appointed, utterly empty, mother and baby changing units within easy range of my own aisle. These were in disdainful contrast to the queues of male spectators waiting to get into the Gents before the start of the second half.
I ought not to complain. At any London theatre, I burn at the ritual humiliation of the long lines of women waiting for the chance to pee as fast as possible before the bell signals the end of the interval. And I hate the way they come out of the matchbox-size cubicles, with eyes averted, and apologise: “I’m afraid it doesn’t flush.” It’s not your fault, sisters; it’s the water pressure and the old pretence that women need no more time behind closed doors in the loo than men do.
But it would take a more militant feminist than me to laugh at seeing the tables turned, with the lines of uneasy chaps spilling out into the corridors while the females, such as there were, sauntered, spoilt for choice of uncrowded Ladies.
The Millennium Stadium seems to have been designed on the Sally Jockstrap principle, which puts blondes in beige suits on the telly to prattle on about Leeds United being promoted to the FA Carling Premiership, as if trying to convince others of their sex that they are missing out on a lot of fun. The same denial leads BBC’s Radio 5 Live to pretend that lots of women are listening. It just isn’t true.
To be honest, there are more females at rugby matches than there used to be. And, with 50 per cent greater capacity than the old Arms Park, the new stadium’s backers are seriously motivated to correct the gender imbalance. So why not do something about explaining the rules? Those giant screens could be educational tools, instead of merely showing close-ups of players’ faces and telling the score. They make no attempt to explain, for example, why a try is first allowed, then retracted. Or what the penalties are for. Not even the cognoscenti, in my experience, understand what goes on in the referee’s mind.
But the Millennium Stadium may have already gone too far towards a kinder, gentler rugby experience. The recent torrential rain led to the decision to press the button on the only retractable stadium roof in Europe apart from Amsterdam. Thus the crowd of 60,000 that watched Wales defeat Samoa (50-6) on dry ground was also watching the first British rugby match ever played indoors.
Rumour has it, however, that the organ-isers of the hallowed Six Nations Championships will veto such cosseting for the two home matches (against England and Ireland) that Wales will play in Cardiff next year. Real men, real rugby champions, it seems, should ignore mud and rain.