Edinburgh followers have been here before, but the reporting of tentative discussions between the SRU and Edinburgh City Council on the occupation of a restored Meadowbank can only be greeted with anticipation.
Finding a suitable home for Edinburgh has been long overdue. Before settling at Murrayfield, Edinburgh’s peripatetic approach had seen games played throughout the capital, at Easter Road, Myreside, and Meadowbank, with moves to Sighthill, or an expanded Tynecastle also mooted at times. Such a track record is suggestive of a leadership unable to grasp the need to put down roots. A stadium is part of the brand, and an appropriate move for the team would be a statement of intent and an opportunity to build bridges with sports fans in the East.
That a new home is needed is plain. Murrayfield is far too big, and playing at the National Stadium undermines the individual identity of Edinburgh Rugby. Recent European games demonstrate that there has always been a serviceable appetite for pro rugby in the city, with supporters laying down a marker when Toulouse came to town, however it is also likely that many people turned up then because they knew they were guaranteed a good atmosphere. To grow as quickly as they should, Edinburgh need a smaller, more intimate venue that will allow an pulsating atmosphere to be regularly reproduced, and expected, at every home game.
Where that would be is now the question. All stadiums already mentioned are unsuitable in their current condition; Easter road and Tynecastle are arguably too big, with congested fixture lists, Myreside is too small. Meadowbank is dilapidated; however, this allows a rare opportunity to tailor any redesign to Edinburgh’s requirements.
With only one stand and a running track separating the stand from the pitch (and a general 1970s vibe) Meadowbank is not satisfactorily prepared. Potential is there, however, being not too far from pubs in Abbeyhill and adjacent to main roads. For Meadowbank to become suitable, it would need investment in hospitality and parking, a couple of new stands, and an overall capacity of around 10,000, reflecting current potential Demand for professional rugby. This should not be out of the question.
That the ground is central is also a plus point. Welsh clubs and Cardiff in particular have experienced declining crowd numbers, coinciding with a move from their traditional homes to impressively built out-of-town locations. It seems notable that the Dragons are opting to redevelop their existing ground at Rodney Parade. The three powerhouse Irish provinces have also committed to city centre locations, recognising that if the ground is relatively inaccessible, the club is too.
It is also important to get the funding right, something that Scottish Rugby has not always done – that central funds were not applied for during the redevelopment of Murrayfield in the mid-1990s is often highlighted as a big mistake. The most impressive venues in France have large council input, whilst the Department of Sport in Northern Ireland has recently invested £14.7 million in a new Ravenhill. This is enlightened, and recognises the role that rugby plays in the community and also the positive Economic benefits that an attractive, well-funded team may generate. Any new stadium should come with council backing.
That a well-known supermarket may be involved in the talks is not necessarily a bad thing, though. Most fans would prioritise above all a club that invests in the future. As long as there is a clear and credible stadium-plan that fits into the growth strategy of the club as a whole, it is unlikely that anyone will get too precious about naming rights, or land deals with private investors.
Other teams have made their moves a great success, moves which mostly came about due to perceived increased demand; Leinster’s crowd has grown from 3900 during the first Celtic League season to 12,500 season ticket holders alone today. This advancement was built around team success, retention of internationalists, good youth programmes, but also a stable structure. In 2007 Leinster signed a 20 year lease at the RDS, signalling commitment.
Many are tempted to dismiss stadium plans by saying that anything that happens will only occur two to three years down the line, but thinking from a long term point of view is essential for building success on the pitch. If Edinburgh Rugby is to be a serious proposition, then a move to something the fans can build into an intimidating fortress is needed. Everyone knows that Murrayfield is only a contingency venue – but could be a handy backup for big European games – and that the team and the fans need to occupy somewhere else they can call home.
Only once a decision is made can Edinburgh continue to maximise the momentum off the pitch that the team are building on it.
Article by Andrew Armstrong