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Farewell to a relic of a bygone age



They opened it for business the year General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry suffered their annihilating away defeat at the Little Big Horn. How fitting, therefore, that Lansdowne Road, the scene of many a ferocious battle, should mark its imminent closure this weekend with a match billed by pure coincidence as 'The Last Stand' - Leinster against Ulster on New Year's Eve.

With a neat piece of symmetry, the last match is a re-enactment of the first 130 years earlier and a full-house of 48,000 will be there to pay their last respects.

No sporting shrine can have been more worthy of a requiem mass, if only because it ought to have been put out of its misery well before the end of the last century.

If The Flinstones and their Stone Age friends had been into rugby, they would have been in their element at Lansdowne Road, a venue which became more antiquated with the passing of every season, so much so that the crumbling old relic looked as if it had been sponsored by Barney Rubble.

Rugby's oldest Test venue hosted its first match the year Edison invented the electric light only to give the distinct impression on many a gloomy winter afternoon thereafter of being completely in the dark about the discovery.

Nobody ever made the mistake of confusing it with a stadium, a fanciful description which fitted those state-of-the-art monuments at Twickenham, Murrayfield, Cardiff and Paris.

Like a shady old lady, Lansdowne Road had been left to lie in a dilapidated state for so long that she ought to have been put out of her misery a quarter of a century ago.

How easy, then, to say good riddance.

Of course it had to go but anyone with an understanding of what made Lansdowne Road unique will have at least a tinge of sadness when the gates close for the last time on Sunday evening and destroy what had always been a gloriously corporate-free zone.

Never again will the old West Stand tremble as it did every time the DART rattled along on the railway line directly underneath.

They never made more of a racket than after the 2003 European Cup final when the losing Perpignan coach found himself drowned out by the trains at the front and Folsom Prison Bluesblaring out from a marquee directly behind him.

The poor Frenchman's splendid look of sheer bemusement was something Monty Python would have killed for.

Not for nothing, then, does another coach, Scotland's Jim Telfer, remember it as "a strange place, a lot of character but completely out of date," and that was when his team won the Triple Crown there en route to the Grand Slam in 1984.

Other wacky images spring to mind, like the mad March day in 1993 when the crowd were so close to joing an Irish maul at the corner flag that Tony O'Reilly swears to this day that the decisive try was scored not by Mick Galwey but by a man wearing a brown raincoat and matching trilby.

O'Reilly, the famous local boy done good, played his first match there as an 18-year-old schoolboy in the mid-Fifties and his impressions of a famous home win almost 40 years later captures the wonderfully chaotic spirit of a ground where the wind always seemed to blow, from a stiff breeze to a near typhoon.

Bill McLaren, the master commentator, reminisces of "a kind of hilarity about Lansdowne Road where nobody seemed to take anything too seriously."

Try telling that to Clive Woodward, distraught at breakfast in Portmarnock on the Sunday morning after Keith Wood had torpedoed another Grand Slam the day before.

Woodward's England, then at the peak of their power, put the record straight two years later in flawless fashion and yet Lansdowne Road's favourite memory was of an infinitely inferior English team from a previous generation.

In 1973, after Wales and Scotland had refused to go there because of what they euphemistically called "The Troubles," England went and the Irish cheers when they ran onto the pitch lasted fully five minutes.

"We may not be much good but we do turn up," John Pullin said at the banquet that night whereupon he became the first defeated captain to be given two standing ovations on the same day, before and after a losing match.

Magical places have that kind of effect.

To Ollie Campbell, one of Lansdowne's favourite sons, it was "Mecca" and after his baptism there in the 1971 Leinster schools' cup final, he dutifully scraped the mud from his boots into a plastic bag and hung it up in his bedroom.

The demolition men cannot demolish the memories of epic tries for epic occasions - Ken Goodall's against Wales in 1970, Gordon Hamilton's during that cruellest of World Cup quarter-finals against Australia in 1991, David Campese's against New Zealand in the semi-final a week later, Mike Tindall's in England's Grand Slam finale.

The peerless Jack Kyle, hailed by the revered Welsh Lion Bleddyn Williams as the greatest fly half of all time, played his first and last match there for Ireland.

Kyle's fellow Ulsterman, Willie Anderson, carved his niche with the explosive eye-balling of Wayne Shelford at the Haka in 1989 when all hell almost broke loose.

So as the ramshackle bit of Ballsbridge braces itself for the final farewell, the Irish Rugby Union will cash in on the nostalgia by selling sods of the old turf wrapped up in anything from paperweights to car key rings.

Soon, to paraphrase the Dubliners' evocative song, Lansdowne Road will be just another by-gone part of Dublin city in the Rare Ould Times.

There is still one last hurdle to be cleared before work begins on replacing it with a 50,000 all-seater stadium, complete with hospitality boxes for use from September 2009.

Planning permission has been granted but the £260m project cannot go ahead until the findings of an appeal by local residents are revealed sometime next month.

Article by Peter Jackson - Daily Mail
The new all singing and dancing 50,000-all seater stadium is expected to be ready for the 2009 autumn internationals.

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