irb.com and James Mortimer 25.May.2013Getty Images
It’s not easy to walk in someone’s shadow. It’s really not easy when the shadow is cast by one of the iconic stadiums in world sport. Think George Best in 1968, Martin Offiah in 1994 or Scott Gibbs in 1999. Whatever football code you were talking, the old Wembley had some pretty good stories to tell.
Its successor – a gleaming, state-of-the-art behemoth replete with towering silver arch – is building memories of its own, and hosting two matches at Rugby World Cup 2015 will go some way to redressing the balance.
Opened in 2007, the new Wembley is one of the elite stadiums on the international scene and it will be a fitting place for New Zealand to begin their title defence against Argentina, before Ireland paint the stadium green for their clash with the Europe 2 qualifier.
Rugby has been part of the picture at Wembley since the early days of its rebirth. In December 2008 it hosted the centenary celebrations of Australia’s gold medal at the 1908 Olympic Games, when the Wallabies battled to an 18-11 victory over the Barbarians. The stadium’s first rugby match certainly had quite a cast list, with All Blacks captain Richie McCaw lining up alongside the backbone of South Africa’s victorious Rugby World Cup 2007 squad for the Barbarians.
In 2009, the bond strengthened further as Saracens took domestic rugby to Wembley for the first time. The relationship has certainly been a fruitful one, and forays to the home of English football are now a regular occurrence at both Aviva Premiership and Heineken Cup level. One match in particular sticks in the memory, though.
November 2009 found South Africa as Tri Nations champions for the first time since 2004 and proud owners of a series win over the British & Irish Lions. They arrived in the northern hemisphere battered and bruised, but proud. Their first port of call was Welford Road, for a tour match against Leicester Tigers. It did not go well. Ben Youngs, in the unfamiliar role of place-kicker, did the damage in a famous victory and a week later it was the turn of France prop Fabien Barcella to dominate proceedings as the Springboks were rolled 20-13 in Toulouse.
Creating lifelong memories
Saracens were up next, and Wembley would provide the welcome mat. The modern surroundings only just shielded the truth; this was an old-school tour match in the finest tradition of the sport. More than 40,000 fans turned out to see if Saracens could follow in the footsteps of Leicester’s youngsters, while on the field it was personal.
As with all the best tour games, there was plenty of pride at stake. Saracens fielded seven South Africans in their starting line-up, while England internationals Brad Barritt and Michael Horak lined up against the country of their birth.
Unfortunately for the Londoners’ ex-pat brigade, the early going was not what they hoped for. Tries from Juan de Jongh and Jongi Nokwe, with a clutch of penalties from Ruan Pienaar, gave the tourists a commanding 18-6 lead at the break. Enter Stuart Tinner, Saracens fan and half-time entertainment. The hooker of Welwyn’s fifth string stepped up and landed a kick on one of Wembley’s crossbars, winning a cool £250,000 in the process.
After Tinner’s effort brought the Wembley crowd to their feet, the second half got underway in a slightly different fashion to the first. Ernst Joubert was the first to breach the South African defence on 45 minutes, having charged down a kick, with Barritt muscling his way through eight minutes later. Nokwe’s second try followed, and was the best of the night by some distance, but Derick Hougaard – another of Saracens’ South Africans – had the final say with the winning drop goal six minutes from time.
Saracens director of rugby Brendan Venter summed up the experience in a couple of well-weighted sentences: “We said from day one, we believe life is all about creating memories. There were no league points on offer but we will remember this night for a long time to come.”
Wembley’s place as one of the iconic sporting venues is without question, but its status as a great rugby ground has only been built in recent seasons. Saracens brought a dash of the sport’s spirit to the party on a cold night in November, a spirit that will be in full flow when Rugby World Cup 2015 gets underway.