They say you have to experience the not-so-good times to fully appreciate the special ones – in which case I consider myself well qualified to pass judgement on the best places in the world to watch a game of rugby.
The first game I ever went to was Tredegar vs Ebbw Vale, a local derby deep in the Welsh Valleys on a chilled Tuesday night thick with mist and drizzle, under floodlights that provided much the same illumination as you’d get from a box of birthday cake candles. Nothing was visible beyond a few metres, so when the spectators (both of them) huddled together at half time under the dilapidated main stand, informed analysis of the previous 40 minutes was limited to: ‘Er, anyone know the score?’
It would not be entirely accurate to say that the Recreation Ground only narrowly lost out to Cape Town’s Newlands in my top six rugby venues – which includes some of the biggest and best rugby stadiums in the world. Here they are.
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The Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens is not so much a rugby tournament as a must-do on the checklist of things to see before you die. The seven-a-side rugby itself is fast, frantic and breathless; although actually watching the game appears to be entirely optional next to the far more important business of getting dressed up as Kim Jong-un, singing along with the crowd and passing out underneath the stand after your 18th beer. The Hong Kong Sevens format and unforgettable carnival atmosphere make it truly one of the best rugby stadiums in the world.
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Not the prettiest ground, but for a stadium built on a graveyard it doesn’t half generate some noise and atmosphere – largely down to a triple-tiered European style design with stands creeping right up to the edges of the pitch. What’s more, the quality and variety of food is way above most rugby grounds, although traditionalists are still catered for with a stall selling lukewarm meat pies.
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The Cardiff venue is truly one of the best rugby stadiums in the world on match day: a stadium in the heart of town, with rival supporters mingling together as they stroll from Cardiff Castle, or engage in a mutual shedding of brain cells inside the dozens of pubs. The stadium, also known as the Millennium Stadium, really comes into its own when the weather is playing up. When rain closes the roof, and the Welsh start singing, there’s really no place like it.
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South Africa’s oldest ground is most famous for its backdrop of Table Mountain. It’s one of the most atmospheric and best rugby stadiums in the world – although my personal favourite memory of it was when it fell pin-drop silent in 1997 after Matt Dawson’s try clinched victory for the British and Irish Lions. At Newlands, the smoke comes from the sausages sizzling on the braais.
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New Zealand’s largest stadium, bang in the centre of its largest city, has been in use since 1900 and has hosted two rugby World Cup finals. Plans to build a new stadium on the Auckland waterfront have twice been postponed. Don’t bother visiting when there’s nothing on (you’ll find more atmosphere on the surface of the Moon) – but when the All Blacks are playing the place is an absolute cauldron.
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Twickenham, the largest ground in the world solely devoted to rugby, is a curious place for atmosphere. When things are going against the home team it can be as raucous as a meeting of the nearby Richmond Rotary Club; but when they’re on top, it positively rocks. Mainly to choruses of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, an African-American slave hymn that somehow became England’s rugby anthem. Why? No one has the faintest idea.