irb.com and James Mortimer 06.Jul.2013Getty Images
It’s one of the most arresting sights in English football, and the type of atmosphere we can expect when Rugby World Cup 2015 lands at St James’ Park.
The 52,000-seat arena will host three matches at the tournament, including a visit of reigning champions New Zealand. The All Blacks will face Tonga in Newcastle in a repeat of the opening match from Rugby World Cup 2011.
Scotland will also bring their supporters south of the border for two pivotal matches.
The Scots will face two-time champions South Africa and an up-and-coming Samoa at the stadium and will hope to create a home away from home.
St James’ Park is a stadium that appears on many a bucket list, with its steep banks of seating creating an enviable atmosphere. Before Newcastle United there was Newcastle Rangers, Newcastle West End and Newcastle East End, with football played on the site from as early as 1880. The name of Sir John Hall, the former chairman of the club, now adorns the Leazes End of the ground and he has strong ties to the region’s rugby story.
Newcastle Falcons were part of Hall’s idea for a sporting dynasty in the region, one that also included an ice hockey and basketball team. With Rob Andrew, the former England fly half, at the helm, the Falcons helped to spearhead English rugby’s march into professionalism. In 1997/98 they became Premiership champions at the first attempt, having won promotion a season earlier.
Emerging from the new set-up in the north east was a young fly half called Jonny Wilkinson. Present and correct throughout the Falcons’ early days – and some later struggles – Wilkinson was a Newcastle player when his drop goal secured Rugby World Cup glory for England in 2003. Two further Rugby World Cup winners, Matt Burke and Owen Finegan of the 1999 Wallabies, have also spent time at the club, along with the king of the giant killers, Samoa’s Pat Lam.
Newcastle’s rugby landscape has long been one dotted with stars. In the years before professionalism a number of leading lights played their club rugby in the city. The Gosforth club, formed in 1877, counts Ireland prop Ray McLoughlin, England forward Roger Uttley and Scotland wing Arthur Smith as former players, with all three representing the British & Irish Lions.
When Rugby World Cup 2015 rolls into town, St James’ Park will make its debut as an international rugby venue, although the city has seen top-class action in the past at Gosforth’s County Ground. In 1962, Canada drew there with the Barbarians, while Italy faced England Under 23 in 1975. In 2006, Samoa cruised past Tonga 36-0.
Newcastle, and the north east, is a rare sporting hotbed. The passion of supporters in the region is legendary, their devotion almost unmatched. Rugby World Cup 2015 will be a special event, and perhaps St James’ Park will be remembered for years to come as a rugby arena.