Lansdowne Road: What a conversion!
Out of the ashes of Lansdowne Road, a sporting phoenix has risen. Pol O Conghaile has the ultimate guide to the new Aviva Stadium
What's the story?
The painters and decorators are done. Green shoots are sprouting from the soil. At least 1,000 construction workers are trickling away from one of Ireland's largest construction sites. Yes folks, the new Aviva Stadium has risen from the ashes of Lansdowne Road in the leafy heart of Dublin 4.
The FAI and IRFU have taken delivery of their €410m home, and a celebration on May 14 will officially open a new chapter in the history of Irish sport.
Was it worth the wait?
Big time. Lansdowne Road, begun in 1872 as an athletics ground, evolved into the home of Irish rugby and soccer on a piecemeal basis (the East Stand was added in 1983; floodlights as late as the 1990s).
We loved it, but even in the 21st century it smacked of orange peel and cigarettes at half-time. Its replacement is purpose-built from scratch, and pretty much knocked me for six.
Granted a sneak preview, the first thing that struck me was how bright the new stadium is. Transparent polycarbonate panels shimmer like a seashell on the skyline -- I could even see through the Havelock Square End to views of the city outside. The whole structure has been shifted a couple of degrees east, and its roof lowers facing south, maximising natural light. It positively gleams.
So what else is new?
There are 117 turnstiles -- up from 50 in the old stadium. A new premium-level podium runs over the railway line, and the practice pitches have been realigned into one pitch running north-south.
Inside, you'll find Lansdowne Road's concrete-heavy 'interiors' are a distant memory. My impression is one of space, of lobbies and concourses wide enough for large crowds to mingle (in an emergency, the stadium can be cleared in 15 minutes). It's light years from the dank passageways of old.
Then there's the design detail: strips of oak line the corporate boxes; soft-toned lights replace spotty florescence; a colour scheme of light greys, classy greens and earthy browns spills out into the stadium itself. You may even find yourself standing on carpets!
That's not even starting on the technology, which ranges from plug-and-play TV studios to a pitch irrigated by rooftop rainwater. There are even gourmet burgers.
Hold on a second... gourmet burgers?
Hadn't you heard? The days of sloppy pints, rubber sausages and half-time scrums at toilets and food vans could well be over. Catering at the new stadium is contracted to Compass, and a total of 59 bars and food outlets are scattered around the various tiers and concourses.
Compared to the hodgepodge of old, this looks like Michelin-standard fare. There are hot dogs and hot beef rolls, but you can also chow down at a wok station, slither up to an oyster bar and, yes, gobble gourmet burgers (€6.50). Chefs will be flipping beef from Hereford herds in Carlow, Kilkenny, Meath and Westmeath, served in compostable wrappers.
What about the drinks?
Aviva Stadium is kitted out with the same fast-pour beer taps in operation at the O2 (these can dispense a pint of lager in three seconds; a pint of Guinness in five). Twenty-nine bars throughout the stadium are capable of serving 2,000 pints a minute, at €5 a pop.
It's not all beer, though. Just think, on a cold opener to the Six Nations you could be cradling a hot whiskey, taking your pick of wines, or grabbing a speciality coffee to go. Any Celtic Cubs still left out there can get their bubble fix at a Champagne and seafood bar.
Can I bring my drink to my seat?
It's touch and go. Concert-goers can bring drinks to seats, we understand, but bringing alcohol pitchside on match days "is at the discretion of the stadium management company".
Can it really recreate the old atmosphere?
Lansdowne Road dished up agony and ecstasy on a regular basis, from the 1948 Grand Slam to the Liam Brady strike that beat Brazil in 1987; from Ginger McLaughlin's 1982 try to Jason McAteer's wonder-goal against Holland in 2001. Can Aviva possibly compare? Croke Park's spectacular redevelopment bodes well.
Its second coming transformed GAA's Central Station into one of the great European stadia, and that will have impressed rugby and soccer fans on their Lansdowne hiatus. The difference with Aviva is that the pitch -- designed for rugby and soccer -- is even closer to the fans.
Isn't it all a bit, you know, corporate?
Absolutely. Lansdowne Road grew organically, endearing itself through a long history of great Irish sporting events and a pantheon of heroes ranging from Ronnie Delaney (whom 40,000 people came to see compete at an athletics meet in the 1950s) to Ronan O'Gara.
The Aviva Stadium, by contrast, is a new build. Giant 'Aviva' branding is worked into the seating on the lower tiers, the catering is handled by a single contractor (let's see how that affects the prices) and totem poles orienting fans leave you in no doubt as to who owns the naming rights.
Naming rights? Is nothing sacred?
No. Its handlers say the stadium cost €410m, and that money has to be recouped somehow. Aviva is forking out €4m per year for 10 years' naming rights.
Will the new name catch on?
It's hard to know. Lansdowne Road had both die-hard and fickle fans. Were Arsenal supporters discommoded when Highbury was replaced by the Emirates Stadium? Do you know anyone who refers to the O2 as The Point anymore? Would you have preferred the Bertie Bowl?
So how do I get there?
Thankfully not by cramming down Herbert Road into turnstiles more suited to pygmies and size-zero models. The new stadium has five approach routes (including new ones from Bath Avenue and Shelbourne Road), and all will be colour-coded to correspond with tickets.
Leave the motor at home, however. Aside from 250 underground disabled spaces, there is no parking, and D4 hasn't sprouted any new multi-storeys that we've heard of.
The good news is that Lansdowne Road Dart Station has also been upgraded. It now includes a forecourt capable of funnelling 1,100 people on to a single train, and a new underpass means the level- crossing gates can remain closed on match days, eliminating the risk of chicken runs.
What about access to the stadium itself?
When you hit the gates, tickets are read electronically. Turnstiles open automatically (though there will be stewards at hand for guidance).
All of the catering is contained inside the stadium, in various spaces between the seating and the outer shell, making it weather-independent.
Which are the best seats?
"Every one of the 50,000 seats has a perfect view of the pitch," Bill Enright, Aviva Stadium's operations manager, tells me on our tour. Some are more equal than others, mind. The mid-tier premium level (which holds 10,000 of the IRFU and FAI's 10-year ticket holders) has padded seats backing on to lobby spaces crawling with lifts and escalators, fresh salad bars and sizzling wok stations.
The IRFU sold its premium tickets -- guaranteeing patrons a seat for all home rugby internationals between now and 2020 -- at a cool €15,000.
Meanwhile, the lower and upper tiers hold the rabble (with a capacity of 19,500 each). But even these enjoy more leg room than the Lansdowne of old. Everyone is seated and under cover (except the players, who need to be kept on their toes), and there are 247 spaces for disabled fans.
Wasn't there a rumour about obstructed views?
Yes. "There are some areas in the stadium where there would potentially have been a restricted view," says a spokesperson. "No decision has been made as to whether to put seats into these areas," he says, adding that the redevelopment contract will be fulfilled. "There will be 50,000 seats with absolutely first-class views of all the action," the spokesperson says.
What about the fat cats?
There are 36 corporate boxes in the new stadium, including four 50-seaters, 22 24-seaters and 10 12-seaters. All sit snugly between premium and upper levels, are accessed via VIP escalators and come equipped with private bar and kitchen, LCD screens and Wi-Fi.
VIPs can also look forward to padded seats with arm rests (their bottoms being that bit softer). These are on a private balcony accessed via a sliding door. I can vouch for the views, and FAI and IRFU box-holders also get priority access to tickets for other events.
That's all hunky-dory. But have they sold?
The FAI and IRFU have been selling corporate boxes for home internationals. But, predictably, they're about as forthcoming as Declan Kidney in a post-match interview.
The IFRU has sold "a majority" of its corporate boxes, its spokesperson says. Five-year contracts for home rugby internationals range in price from €380,000 for 12-seater boxes to €850,000 for 50-seaters. The FAI says its corporate box sales are "on target".
Both, however, note that times have changed since Lansdowne Road was demolished in 2007, and some re-sales are not being ruled out.
Are the players looked after?
And then some. The Irish rugby and soccer teams will be driven via an underground service tunnel into dressing rooms fitted with hydrotherapy pools, dedicated video analysis facilities and a warm-up room with netted ceilings high enough to accommodate last- minute line-out practice.
No excuse, then.
What if I need to, erm, see a man about a dog?
There were many highlights at Lansdowne Road, but the toilets were not one of them. The new stadium goes a long way towards addressing that. It even incorporates waterless urinals, saving some 400,000 litres of water on event days, according to Bill Enright.
There are also more toilets generally and -- as female fans will be delighted to hear -- a total of 443 toilets marked as ladies only. The paucity of ladies' loos led to much discomfort at Lansdowne Road.
When is the first match?
The first rugby match played at Lansdowne Road was an inter-provincial between Leinster and Ulster in December 1876. Fittingly, the first match in the new stadium features a combined Leinster/ Ulster squad taking on Connacht/ Munster. It takes place on July 31.
What else is scheduled?
The Republic of Ireland plays Argentina in a friendly on August 11. The Euro 2012 qualifiers kick off with home fixtures against Andorra (September 7) and Russia (October 8). All of these fixtures are sold out, but keep an eye on the FAI website (fai.ie) for any ticket returns.
There is talk of Manchester United playing in August, but this is unconfirmed, according to the FAI. Michael Bublé, on the other hand, is a definite, on September 24 and 25.
Irish rugby gets its house-warming party on November 6, when the Springboks will reverse an age-old rugby tradition by donning their away colours for the first game of the autumn internationals. After that, Ireland host Samoa (November 13), the All Blacks (November 20) and Argentina (November 27).
In 2011, the stadium is lined up to host the UEFA Cup final.