StadiumMK, Milton Keynes
Northampton Saints v Saracens
Stadium MK will get its first taste of international rugby at the World Cup later this year, when it is scheduled to host three matches, including the France v Canada game on October 1.Today’s “Best of British”, top-of-the-table clash between Northampton Saints and Saracens has long been switched to the 30,500 capacity stadium as part of tournament organiser England Rugby 2015’s operational testing programme.
Let’s hope they were watching closely. There was gridlock around the ground for more than three hours before the 3.15 kick-off; due it would seem mainly to road closures.
The last time I was here I picked a Saturday when the infamous “engineering works” meant a half-an-hour journey took almost five times as long. Has anyone bothered to check that Network Rail does not intend to carry out work on the West Coast main line next October?
This wasn’t the only cock-up. Saracens had to do a quick change of shirts at half-time because of a clash with Northampton. Saints had informed Sarries that they would be wearing a St George’s Day kit of red and white, designed to support Help for Heroes. Saracens must have not got the message and the visitors turned up in their normal away strip of all-white. The referee allowed the game to go ahead while Saracens had their normal black shirts delivered by a police escort in time for the second half.
Both teams have used Stadium Mk as a home from home in the past. Saracens were the first club to host a rugby match at the ground when Bristol visited in 2008, providing a grand stage for Rugby World Cup 2003 winner Richard Hill’s 288th and last appearance for the men in black. A last-minute try from Kameli Ratuvou ensured Hill’s 15-year club career finished on a winning note.
Northampton then used Stadium MK as a base for their assault on the Heineken Cup knockout stages in 2011. The Saints defeated Ulster and Perpignan in front of big crowds in the quarter and semi-finals. The following season also saw Munster stop by for a pool match, with Simon Zebo marking one of the most thrilling chapters in the stadium’s short rugby history with a hat-trick as the Irish side won an entertaining contest 51-36.Saracens once again visited for their home Premiership fixture against the Saints on December 310, 2012, while their new stadium at Barnet was being built.
MK Dons moved to their brand new stadium (which cost about £50million to build) in 2007. From the outside it has a modern look, with good use of silver coloured cladding and a large amount of glass on view. The most striking feature is the stadium’s roof, which sits high up above the ground with a large gap between it and the back row of seating which allows more natural light to reach the pitch. The stadium is totally enclosed and has a bowl like design.
The overall look of the stadium has recently benefitted from the installation of seating into the previously unused upper tier. This will take the capacity to 30,700 for the World Cup. It is two-tiered, with three sides having a large lower tier over-hung by a smaller upper tier. The west side of the stadium is slightly different, with the seating areas in the upper tier being replaced by the Directors box and executive and corporate hospitality areas.Unusally the spacious concourse areas at the back of the lower tier see directly into the stadium, so where is what seems a noticeable gap between the lower and upper tiers is where the concourse is located.
Once you get into the stadium it is a delight. Chatting with other fans, the majority were greatly impressed, commenting on the comfort and legroom in the seating, with excellent views of the action and a great atmosphere. The toilet facilities have been especially praised by many fans, male and female, offering wide entrances, soap and hot running water. Such luxuries at a football ground! The stadium even has such creature comforts as padded seats and the ability to watch the game in progress whilst munching a burger on the concourse.
There was an excellent fan area with around 15 branches of famous restaurants. Provided you set off in the next week or two to make sure you arrive on time, then the Milton Keynes World Cup experience should be fabulous….
But enough quibbling…let’s not forget there was a game of rugby. This biting and blasting contest marked the end of Northampton’s late-season dip. After their heavy defeats at Clermont and Exeter they had the game to hold off an heroic attempt by Saracens to dethrone them from the top of the table. Saracens, themselves coming off a draining match in France against Clermont, had to absorb the massive blow of losing Billy Vunipola in the first half to injury, being pulverised by the referee and losing a significant lead. But their commitment was beyond praise.
However, the Saints eventually overcame the sinners of Saracens, whose discipline collapsed along with their scrum after the break, when they were penalised 13 times and finished a match they led for the most part fortunate to have a bonus point. When Stephen Myler gave his side the lead for the first time 63 minutes in it was via his fifth penalty, and the Saints had found a way to win.