8:00am Saturday 25th January 2014
By Andrew Smith
WITNEY could soon be home to a professional rugby union team.
London Welsh want to develop a 10,000-capacity ground at Witney Community Stadium on Downs Road, the former home of defunct football club Witney Town.
The plan, submitted to West Oxfordshire District Council by landowner On The Edge, is for the installation of five temporary stands including more than 6,000 seats.
If approved, the club say they will take up residence in time for the 2014-15 season, which starts in September.
London Welsh currently play at the Kassam Stadium in Oxford, sharing the ground with Oxford United.
Directors are not ruling out continuing with that arrangement next season, but they say they are looking at Witney as an alternative.
Club commercial director David Jenkins said: “We came to the Kassam Stadium because we needed a ground that met the professional board criteria. Our criteria is moving fast and one of the things is to find an alternate or standby ground in the vicinity.”
Mr Jenkins said an issue with playing at the Kassam is that the club do not have “primacy of tenure”, meaning Oxford United always have the first option on fixtures and use of the stadium.
If planning permission is granted on February 18, the club will then have to get the Witney stadium approved by the Professional Game Board for Rugby Union in England.
London Welsh are in the Greene King IPA Championship but are seeking promotion to the Aviva Premiership which has more stringent stadium requirements.
Mr Jenkins described match attendances of less than 2,000 at the Kassam Stadium this year as “disappointing” and said he believed West Oxfordshire could attract larger crowds with the stadium able to generate sponsorship and advertising revenue.
It could also become a wider centre for sporting activities and schools matches, he said.
The news has been welcomed by West Oxfordshire District councillors as a major boost for the area, with the stadium having been unused since Witney Town folded last February.
Former mayor Harry Eaglestone, whose Witney West ward covers the area, said: “I think it would be a good thing – it would bring people to the area and help local businesses.”
West Oxfordshire District Council leader Barry Norton said: “If it does happen, I would hope London Welsh work closely with Witney Rugby Football Club to their mutual benefit.”
Last April On The Edge claimed the stadium, set in 34 acres, could be demolished to make way for a supermarket, care home or bus depot.
But director Gavin Brown said: “They (the club) need to be sustainable – they need a home they can control and they have to get revenue in.
“A lot of businesses want to be involved. The club could embrace the community and offer an ideal sports facility.”
Firoz Kassam, owner of the Kassam Stadium, said: “If they want to move, good luck to them. If they want to talk, I am here to talk.”
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