RFU insists England will seek home Cup comforts
Ritchie set to stand against Welsh 'offer' to play key 2015 match across the border
Ian Ritchie did his level best to appear grateful for the offer from the far side of the Severn Bridge, but the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union never quite managed to look like a man who had stayed awake all night wondering whether to accept such lavish Welsh largesse. Quizzed on whether England would contemplate ceding home advantage to their sworn enemy when the two countries meet in a pool match at the 2015 World Cup, he answered with a question of his own – and a very good question it was too.
"Why would we want to do that?" he asked, not unreasonably, during a discussion on the ramifications of Monday's tournament draw, which placed England, the hosts, in a horrible pool with Wales and Australia, the two-time champions. "I must make it clear that it's not my decision, but I'd like to think the games against Wales and the Wallabies will be played at Twickenham. Shock, horror and astonishment that I should suggest such a thing!"
It was Ritchie's opposite number at the Welsh governing body, Roger Lewis, who provocatively proposed that the not-so-neighbourly derby contest should be played in Cardiff, on the grounds that the Millennium Stadium, guaranteed to be on the list of venues despite standing on non-English soil, "is the best rugby stadium in the world". Somehow, the RFU boss did not seem wholly convinced by the argument. "It's very nice of Wales to ask us over, but we feel that with a £76m investment going into our own modest little stadium, we might make Twickenham a decent spot for a game of rugby."
Barbed witticisms aside, Ritchie did acknowledge that there were difficult fixture-scheduling decisions ahead for England Rugby 2015, the delivery body set up to bring the third biggest sporting event in the world to fruition. As the RFU included the Millennium Stadium on its roster largely for economic reasons – charged with attracting average gates of almost 60,000 across 48 matches to meet financial targets, the governing body was rather taken with the idea of a series of 75,000 sell-outs – it will have to offer the Welsh something more than a home game against a low-profile qualifier.
"The economic side of the tournament is highly important," Ritchie said, "but it is also true that in 2015, we will have a unique opportunity –an opportunity that arises once in a generation – to grow the game in England, to inspire people across the country to participate in rugby. It's a very complex matrix we're looking at here; it's multi-faceted stuff.
"If we move games away from Twickenham, how will that work out in terms of financial returns? What will the England coaches think about such a decision? All these things will have to be considered, so it's good that we don't need to decide today or tomorrow. We have space for proper reflection."
If including the Millennium Stadium on the venue list seemed like a good idea at the time, the view in some quarters has changed now that Sod's Law has had its wicked way by joining England and Wales together at the competitive hip.
With high-capacity grounds like Twickenham, Wembley, Old Trafford and, in all probability, the Olympic Stadium in the mix, was the Cardiff option now being seen as a mistake? Ritchie was not in the mood for such an admission.
"I won't speculate on hypotheticals going backwards and you wouldn't expect me to," he said, uncomfortably aware that the Australian squad will be every bit as apoplectic as the red-rose contingent if they find themselves participating in what amounts to a Welsh home game. "We are where we are."
The chief executive did, however, confess that at this stage, he had no clue as to how the delicate task of matching fixtures to venues without causing diplomatic incidents at every turn might be accomplished.
He was on far happier ground talking about the national team's record-breaking victory over the All Blacks last weekend – a performance that confirmed him in his belief, if confirmation were needed, that the right people were in charge of the show. Ritchie is awaiting a report on the structure of the RFU's elite rugby department, written by Sir Ian McGeechan of Lions coaching fame and Peter Keen, the former head of UK Sport, but does not expect any nasty surprises.
"If there are good, radical suggestions, I won't hold back," he said, "but I really don't think we're in that kind of place. Do we need major heart surgery? I think the patient performed pretty well on Saturday. We had the same players, the same coaches and the same processes in place against the All Blacks as we had at the start of the autumn. Were those processes capable of delivering? Palpably, the answer was 'yes'."
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