Hell hath no fury like a Leicester rugby man scorned. England's biggest club – largest designated union stadium by a distance, most season ticket holders by miles – spent much of yesterday in a state of advanced apoplexy after discovering that Welford Road, the spiritual home of the two-time European champions, will not host a World Cup game when the global tournament returns to these shores in 2015.
The Leicester chairman, Peter Tom, clearly flabbergasted that the competition organisers had identified no fewer than 17 venues they considered preferable, let rip in no uncertain terms. "We are hugely disappointed," he said. "Welford Road has hosted many, many major occasions over the years, including visits from South Africa, Australia and Argentina in recent seasons. It is home to the best supported, most successful club in the history of the professional game in this country… yet it will not be at the top table when it comes to hosting a global rugby event here.
"We have always been a forward-thinking and progressive club and have played an important role in the development and promotion of rugby union in England. Who can forget that both the head coach and captain of our World Cup-winning team in 2003 – and several other members of the squad and back-room staff – spent major parts of their careers in Leicester colours? That the organisers do not think this is an appropriate venue for fixtures is confusing. It is disappointing that our investment is not rewarded with World Cup status while many other venues on the list have not shown such a level of commitment to our sport."
Tom's sentiments were shared by countless Leicester supporters, many of whom used more colourful language in venting their spleen via the usual array of social media outlets. The news that Gloucester, another of England's great rugby cities and an arch-rival for more than a century, had survived the stadium cull did not improve their humour. Kingsholm is a significantly smaller venue than Welford Road, and the current team are significantly less successful.
But the World Cup organisers' decision makes at least a degree of sense. The Leicester City football stadium is no more than a Toby Flood drop kick away from Welford Road and has obvious advantages over the rugby ground, both in terms of capacity – 32,000, an increase of around 8,000 on the neighbouring venue – and facilities. Arguments that local rugby followers have been "disenfranchised" do not begin to hold water.
It is not yet certain that Kingsholm, the last remaining club rugby ground in the running for World Cup games, will make the final cut: it is on a long list of 17, which is due to be whittled down to a dozen early next year. It is in a strong position, however: the capacity of just over 16,000 is perfect for the kind of low-appeal pool game inevitably thrown up by a 20-team tournament. Tonga versus Georgia at Twickenham would see the entire crowd congregating in the players' tunnel. At Gloucester, it would draw a full house. "We're one step closer," said Chris Ferguson, the acting managing director at Gloucester. "A lot of hard work has gone into getting us this far and while we're conscious that the competition is extremely stiff, we'll be pulling out all the stops to make it onto the final list. I have no doubt that if Kingsholm is awarded the honour, the club, the city and the surrounding area will light up the tournament with passionate support."
If the financial numbers are to stack up, the Rugby Football Union must sell 2.9 million tickets across 48 games. To put it another way, the governing body needs an average gate of more than 60,000 before it starts to make money. Hence the decision to pack the venue list with football grounds, including Wembley, Old Trafford, St James' Park and Villa Park. The Millennium Stadium in Cardiff will definitely be used, as will the Olympic Stadium in east London if negotiations are successful.
While Manchester United are said to be wholly enthusiastic about hosting World Cup contests on their precious turf, some Premier League football clubs, including Arsenal and Liverpool, dropped out of the running at an early stage. Discussions with those remaining are likely to be both complex and time sensitive: fixture scheduling for the rugby tournament cannot be agreed until the shape of the 2015-16 Premier League, Champions League and Europa League campaigns are finalised.
However, the RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie said yesterday that in his view, "things were in a good place" with regards to scheduling. He also defended the decision of the World Cup organising team to ditch the Welford Road option. "Of course we recognise the fantastic job Leicester do – the contribution they have made historically, and continue to make," he commented. "But it's important to look at the factors considered by the audit group. Welford Road did not tick all the boxes in terms of practicalities."
World Cup administrators pointed to the wide geographical spread of their stadium long list, emphasising the importance of making the tournament a "national event" rather than a London-centric one based around Twickenham. By including two venues in the north-east – St James' Park and the Stadium of Light – and two on the south coast – St Mary's and the Brighton Community Stadium – with a view to playing bidders off against each other, they believe they can maximise rugby's impact in areas where the union game has yet to make a serious impact on the local sporting consciousness.
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