A patch of grass. Painted white lines. Two sets of goalposts. And that’s about it; the only common constituents shared by our two most imperial of sports, football and rugby. Despite emerging from the same cultural and ideological backgrounds, the two have rarely found mutual ground as they abide by diverging societal paths. Football; opium of the people, the embodiment of the working classes. Rugby; penchant of public schoolboys, attached to society’s middling masses.
As football becomes increasingly opulent and demographics of followers of both sports constantly shifting, the two can no longer be so acutely separated along such strict philosophical lines. Likewise, it is progressively evident that the realms of football and rugby are entwining further as groundshares between clubs on both sides becoming a more salient feature in British sport. Can they really get along?
With London Welsh’s victory over the Cornish Pirates on Wednesday night at Oxford United’s Kassam Stadium raising the prospect of promotion the AVIVA Premiership, further debate has been ignited by the potential presence of Welsh on a permanent basis at the League Two club. Though embroiled in murky dispute with the RFU over the issue, there remains a fair chance of rugby being played regularly at the Kassam next season.
Reaction to the decision is a potent mix of cautious apprehension and outright revulsion. As mere tenants of the ground, Oxford United hold little sway over the decision as all negotiations go through the stadium company. Besides the obvious anxiety with regards to the state of the pitch, fears linger that the club will be conceding a segment of its identity. Likewise, London Welsh Managing Directon John Taylor claimed that “it could be a match made in heaven with both seeing financial benefits”, yet with the club receiving only a fraction of the profit generated through the stadium’s activities and paying substantial rent, this seems less a realistic prospect and more an attempt to mollycoddle fans into placating hostilities.
If made prime tenants, London Welsh will have priority over fixture scheduling and stadium branding; on Wednesday night, all traces of Oxford United were abolished and pasted over with Welsh signage. Understandably, many Oxford fans are unwilling to relinquish the stamps which define the club’s presence at the ground, as abounding efforts have been made in recent years to brew a greater sense of belonging where previously detachment was the prevailing sentiment. Supporters group OxVox have established a ‘heritage project’ in recent years in an attempt to promote a more visible poise at the ground; there is a real prospect that all this may be vanquished. The arrival of rugby will only exacerbate the disconnection between club and home.
With an attendance of around 3,000 for what is the biggest game in domestic rugby outside the top flight on Wednesday, many are rightfully skeptical as to the feasibility of London Welsh playing at the Kassam Stadium. With a traditionally small fan base, the club would be reliant upon a combination of larger swathes of visiting supporters and an unlikely growth in local enthusiasm to vindicate such a move. History suggests that may be hard to come by; Oxford previously held the final of Rugby’s Europa League equivalent in 2002 and 2005, the latter attracting a crowd of just over 7,000 for European Rugby’s second most prestigious event. With Oxford averaging more than this in the fourth level of English football, the implication is that the city has firmly marked its preference for football.
There are of course a number of examples whereby football and rugby clubs have coincided in relative harmony for a number of years. Wycombe Wanderers, Reading and Watford each share with London Wasps, London Irish and Saracens respectively, with manageable levels of friction. The difference being here, however, that each is a secondary tenant to the football club: Wasps were forced to move a Heineken Cup tie to Coventry’s Ricoh Arena in 2007 as Wycombe had an FA Cup tie at home the same day. If a similar scenario were to arise in the case of London Welsh and Oxford, it is most probable that the football club would have to move their fixture in order to accommodate the rugby tie. Whilst fixture lists are easily workable around both sports, postponements and cup ties cannot be accounted for, throwing up contentious logistical quandaries for both parties.
Whilst the practical hurdles are manageable, it is the ethical dilemmas which pose most menace in groundshares. Football and rugby fan cultures exist in entirely different spectrums and as such attrition between followers of both codes is inevitable. Supporters of Wigan Athletic and Rugby League side Wigan Warriors have been embroiled in constant bickering for many years. There is only a limited crossover of consensus between the two sports, despite progress being made in recent years to alter stereotypical perceptions. The crux of the matter is that ultimately the cultural leanings of football and rugby are incompatible.
Whether London Welsh are able to win their appeal with the RFU and assume tenancy at the Kassam Stadium or not, the issue has undoubtably reignited tensions between the two sports and further emphasised the inherent disparities which are present.
Though most poignantly, most ardently and most importantly, there lies one fatal flaw at the heart of London Welsh’s bid. With a car park occupying the vacant end of the three-sided Kassam Stadium, London Welsh will have a crippling amount of insurance claims for smashed windscreens to deal with.
Do you think football/rugby groundshares are workable or should the two remain separate? Tweet me @acherrie1