Olympic Stadium takes tentative look to its future on Rugby World Cup debut

Olympic Stadium

Rugby World Cup fever had definitely failed to reach Stratford High Street, where a confused posse of French visitors rattled their cases past pound shops and market stalls.

But, on the other side of Westfield, the cavernous temple to consumerism that acts as the gateway to the Olympic Park, a sense of genuine excitement filled the night air.

The East End is not generally known as a hotbed of rugby union. But among those who have enthusiastically trumpeted the possibilities for an Olympic Stadium that has now cost £701m and counting, the possibility of bringing rugby, cricket and other sports to new audiences was always one of the rationales. So it was that in the purpose-built fanzone, visitors were encouraged to try out their skills on inflatable pitches, pointed towards local clubs and implored: “Rugby union’s a game for everyone: big lads, small girls – thinkers, sprinters – it’s a family sport, a social game.”

Of course the 50,626 fans in the stadium itself were not, in the main, locals. Rather they were French fans who had hopped on the Eurostar or made their home in London, perhaps plying their trade in nearby Canary Wharf.

If this was the first big test of whether the money so far lavished on building an athletics stadium and then completely reconstructing it from the inside out to make it also suitable for “winter sports” is worth it, it passed – with caveats.

At last it was possible to get a tingling sense of how it might crackle on a big Premier League night or, in Karren Brady’s dreams, for big European  matches.

Overlooked by the eerie red glow of the Orbit, one of Boris Johnson’s impressive herd of white elephants, its shimmering green carpet is a fitting stage for a major international sporting event and it didn’t feel like a reconfigured athletics stadium.

A test event featuring the Barbarians and Samoa descended into farce when the sprinklers came on and soaked the players during a break in play – more Soggy Saturday than Super Saturday.

But queues at Stratford station aside, there were few other operational issues to complain about at this first of five Rugby World Cup matches. It felt invigorating to see the park once again flooded with people, bubbling with anticipation as they strode towards the  stadium. In its new configuration it also looks and feels quite unlike any other football – or indeed rugby – ground in the country.

Those expensive retractable seats – which Brady pushed so hard for – had been rolled forward on three sides, creating odd platforms behind the lower tier, and it remains a vast bowl. It is in many ways the polar opposite of Upton Park – a tight, wonderfully atmospheric, tatty old ground in the English  tradition.

The England 2015 organisers fought hard to have the Olympic Stadium included in their schedule, aware that it would ramp up the number of seats they were able to offer and give them a unique selling point. If there’s one other abiding impression it is that West Ham fans will have to go some to create an atmosphere opposing teams will find intimidating.

When the anthems rang out before kick off, or when the sea of French supporters tried to urge their players over the try line, the noise had a tendency to drift into the night air.

As Yannick Nyanga went over for France’s second try of the night, the levels rose. So too when Romania occasionally threatened, sparking the neutrals into life.

But in truth the action was a touch too pedestrian to make a definitive judgment.

Yet the thought persisted, as La Marseillaise obliterated memories of Mo Farah thundering down the home straight to Unfinished Sympathy, that it was as though it was time to finally take those memories and put them in a box. The £701m Olympic Stadium, rebuilt at huge public expense, must now make new ones if it is to justify the cash and political capital lavished on it. This was a modest, but occasionally memorable, start.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Owen Gibson at the Olympic Stadium, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 23rd September 2015 21.59 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010