We can all be Gloucester Shedheads for six weeks
Rugby’s spiritual home and its celebrated fans make the city a perfect World Cup host venue
The illuminated warning sign set up on the perimeter of Gloucester has some pertinent advice.
“Rugby World Cup 2015 Host City. Plan ahead,” it reads.
And anyone intending to attend one of the four matches scheduled at the Kingsholm stadium would do well to pay heed. Especially if they have tickets on the Shed terrace that runs the length of the east touchline.
“If you want a spot on the halfway line, you have to get there 90 minutes before kick-off, minimum,” says Paul Tate, a retired teacher who has been a Shedhead for 40 years and has tickets for all four World Cup games. “Don’t worry about keeping yourself amused. You’ll get to see the referee warming up. And if he does it close to the Shed you can remind him where he’s about to referee.”
This Rugby World Cup threatens to be the most corporate sporting event ever staged in this country. Around Twickenham, a temporary city of hospitality marquees has bloomed. In Leicester matches are to be played in the more sizeable glossy new football stadium, rather than the rugby ground in order to accommodate more hospitality package guests.
Everywhere, blanding, smoothing and homogenising is in operation, turning every stadium into an identikit. Except in Gloucester. This is the place that regards itself as the heartbeat of rugby, the genuine, authentic soul of the game, the very antipathy of corporate.
It would take more than a World Cup to change Gloucester. “It’s going to be fascinating,” says Mr Tate of the forthcoming tournament. “Though not quite as exciting as watching Gloucester.”
The beating centre of Gloucester is the Shed, the terrace where 4,000 cherry-and-white clad diehards set the raucous tone of every home game. Standing on its empty steps earlier this week, as driving rain pooled on the touchline below, it looked an undistinguished stretch of concrete. Far more substantial was the cantilever roofed stand opposite, with its full array of modern boxes and comfy seats. But when it is full of passionate, witty, knowledgeable Shedheads, this is a very different place.
“Brutal,” is how Mike Tindall, the former Gloucester and England centre describes the atmosphere that wafts out from below the stand’s corrugated iron roof. “I remember when I played for Bath, I’d deliberately run the length of the Shed before kick off just to enjoy what they said. Some of the stuff shouted at me was so funny. But harsh.” Tindall adds things didn’t much change when he later signed to play for Gloucester.
“Wonderful fans, absolutely brilliant. But they let you know when you make a mistake. Nobody who plays there wants to drop a high kick. Soon as you do, whichever side, out come the donkey chants – eeyore, eeyore.”
The noise is at its peak, so Tindall reckons, when the scrum is in action. Bred over the years in the bullocking tradition of Mike Burton, Phil Vickery and Trevor Woodman, the rumour around Gloucester is that for three years on the trot the supporters’ try of the season was a penalty try. A pushover heave is said to be greeted by a bigger vocal swirl than when the club’s England winger Jonny May runs in from 80 yards. “Oh yeah,” says Tindall. “What they love more than anything is watching a good old ruck. Get a rolling maul going and you can’t hear yourself think.” According to Stephen Vaughan, the Chief Executive of Gloucester Rugby, it is the unique atmosphere generated by the Shed that visitors from around the world want to experience during the World Cup. This is
Gloucester’s unique sales proposition. “Kingsholm was the first stadium to sell out, it’ll be packed to the rafters,” he says. “This is the place that will be rocking, what rugby is all about.” Though he admits that some aspects of the Shed, particularly its demographic, have been fondly mythologised over the years.
“There is an underlying working class element to Gloucester, always has been,” he says. “But not anywhere near the image. Supporters like to play up to that. There’s barristers, doctors, business people who prefer to watch from the Shed. I‘ve invited very wealthy locals up to a box to watch a game and they say, no they love it in the Shed.”
And it is the Shed that is at the forefront of the city’s embrace of the World Cup. Walking around Gloucester this week is to be greeted by a town relishing its chance to host the competition. There is bunting everywhere, flags of the competing nations flutter from shop fronts, the litter bins have been decorated in rugby scenes. On many a street corner is a piece of art based on a rugby ball character called Scrumty. On many a lamp post is the sign: Gloucester 2015, Our Big Year.
“The World Cup’s been fantastic for us,” says John Hudson, who runs a family sports shop in the city. “We always sell loads of Gloucester and England shirts, but this has been on another level. We’ve even sold a ton of Scotland shirts.” This week, the Tonga squad – led by the two Gloucester players Sione Kalamafoni and David Halaifonua – are coming on a visit to the shop ahead of today’s fixture at Kingsholm against Georgia. While there they could buy all sorts of memorabilia, including a Romania national shirt.
“We haven’t actually sold any of them yet,” says Mr Hudson. “But it’s early days.” The expectation is that the tournament will generate significant revenue for the city. The council estimate that across a Premiership season, Gloucester Rugby is responsible for more than £20million spent in local businesses, providing 371 jobs (92 full time, 279 part time). But the four World Cup games in Gloucester are expected to generate £48million, sustaining 905 jobs. And nowhere is the business of rugby more apparent than in the White Hart pub opposite the entrance to the Shed.
Styling itself “the most rugby crazed pub in the most rugby crazed city”, this is a bar dedicated to the game. Or at least to toasting it in ale. The walls are covered in memorabilia and pictures, four giant television screens offer rugby and rugby alone. For the World Cup, the owner Gary Teague, brother of the former Gloucester and England stalwart Mike, has erected a huge marquee in the garden, ready to take drinking capacity beyond 800. On the day the Telegraph visits, the marquee is empty save for a couple of ducks and a chicken sheltering from the downpour. But when the World Cup kicks off it will be rammed, tables have been booked by visitors coming from as far as Texas, Tokyo and Edinburgh, all seeking to absorb some of the Gloucester atmosphere.
Mind, it will have to go some to match the business when Gloucester played Munster in the Heineken Cup at Kingsholm. That night an invading army of thirsty Irish fans drank the place dry.
“5 April, 2008, a date etched on my heart,” smiles Teague at the memory. “What a night that was. All our business comes from the rugby. Truth is, if it wasn’t for the Shed, this place would have turned into a block of flats years ago.”
Today, however, there will be nowhere else like it, nowhere better to be.
This, after all, is Gloucester.
Big fan: Mike Tindall loved the ‘brutal’ Shed atmosphere as a player