England's World Cup bid in doubt

Recession may force RFU to abandon plan to host 2015 tournament
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The Independent Online

England, widely viewed as odds-on favourites to host the Rugby World Cup in 2015, yesterday threw the future of the sport's biggest tournament into doubt by indicating that they may abandon plans to bid for the tournament. Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, said changes in the tender process, together with the chaotic state of the financial markets, meant he "could not make the sums add up", adding: "If we can't get it to work, who can?"

The RFU is attempting to persuade the board of Rugby World Cup Ltd – an offshoot of the sport's governing body, the International Rugby Board – to rethink its decision to demand an underwritten guarantee of around £75m from those nations interested in pitching for host status. Final decisions on the hosting of the 2015 and 2019 tournaments are scheduled to be made next July.

"I can't see how any individual union could bid on the current basis, and in the current economic climate, without substantial government support," Baron said. "We would like to host the event in 2015, but from my analysis, I think it unlikely that we could turn a profit. If the numbers don't stack up, it would be imprudent of me to advise the RFU's management board to press ahead. As things stand, I wouldn't advise such a thing."

Previous tournaments have been financed under a profit-share arrangement between the RWC Ltd and the host nation. Under the new system, bidders must effectively purchase the hosting rights up front, in the knowledge that, with no access to broadcasting and merchandising monies, their only revenue stream would come from ticket sales. This, Baron said, would inevitably lead to a sharp rise in ticket prices, which in turn would threaten attendances.

Along with England, seven other countries – Australia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Scotland, South Africa and Wales – have expressed an initial interest in hosting the 2015 event. All except England are also considering pitching for the 2019 tournament, along with Russia, where there is a growing interest in the game. However, John O'Neill, the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union, has his own concerns about the new tender process and, like Baron, is unlikely to pursue a bid under the present rules.

"We are hoping to make a persuasive case for the system to be changed in time for next month's meeting of the IRB council," said Baron. "If it doesn't happen there, time will be very short, as the following meeting is not until May. I'm sure the new system was introduced for the best of reasons: there are important development programmes in place, and the World Cup is the only significant source of money for the IRB. But England is the biggest of all rugby economies. If we can't put in a bid that makes financial sense, it's difficult to see who else can manage it."

Baron's pessimistic view of the impact of the meltdown in the financial sector is reflected by ticket sales for the forthcoming international programme at Twickenham, which begins with a match against the Pacific Islanders tomorrow week. Less than two-thirds of the 82,000-plus seats have been sold for the fixture, but of greater concern is the fact that for the first time in living memory, tickets for a game against the All Blacks – the biggest box-office draw in the sport by a distance – are on general sale. "We think we'll sell out for the Australia, South Africa and New Zealand matches," the chief executive said, "but there are definitely signs of weakness in the corporate hospitality business at the moment."

Meanwhile, the new England manager Martin Johnson moved decisively to quash the idea that he and his colleagues among the back-room staff were worried about the disciplinary record of Dylan Hartley, the outstanding young Northampton hooker who seems certain to win a first cap against the tourists from the South Seas, as a member of the starting line-up or off the bench.

Hartley missed last year's World Cup in France after picking up a six-month suspension for gouging during a Premiership fixture with Wasps, and while he has not been accused of any serious misdemeanour since, he attracted some sharp criticism from the Saracens director of rugby, Eddie Jones, last weekend after hitting the scrum-half Mosese Rauluni with a straight-arm tackle.

"If I thought Dylan was a liability, he wouldn't be in the squad," said Johnson, who knows a thing or two about questionable disciplinary records. "Am I concerned about him? No. He's aware that he's picked up a bit of a reputation, but we trust him. He's a young guy, an enthusiastic guy. If he's gone over the top on occasion, it's because of that enthusiasm. He knows what we expect of him."

Johnson will decide over the weekend whether to call in a replacement for the Bath full-back Nick Abendanon, who left the camp on Wednesday after a scan on an injured toe showed the damage to be worse than at first thought. England are struggling badly for a No 15 ahead of the Pacific Islands contest, and Johnson did not rule out the possibility that Danny Cipriani, the Wasps outside-half, might be selected in the position if Mathew Tait, struggling with a hamstring problem, fails to make the cut. A final call on Tait will be made on Monday.