Welford Road's World Cup woe
October 11, 2012
Welford Road has been left off the 2015 World Cup stadium roster © Getty Images
The decision to omit Leicester's Welford Road ground from the list of potential venues for the 2015 Rugby World Cup has caused outcry.
Organisers cited concerns about a small pitch and other facilities in their 'venue audit' while the Tigers are adamant that their historic home is up to staging international rugby. With this in mind, this week's Tackling Rugby asks whether England Rugby 2015 (ER 2015) were right to leave Welford Road off the list?
ESPNscrum senior editor Graham Jenkins argues that is was the right call:
Any criticism of ER 2015's decision to not include Welford Road on their long list of potential venues is painfully short-sighted. The Tigers' traditional home may well boast a proud history but this is no time to wallow in the past - this decision is all about the future and organisers should be applauded for their approach.
England last hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1991 and they are likely to have to wait at least a quarter of a century before getting the honour again with the International Rugby Board's desire to expand the game and the hosting aspirations of emerging nations like Italy and Russia set to ensure an even longer wait. That makes this tournament oh-so-crucial in terms of engaging as many fans and potential players as possible while at the same time generating the revenue to keep the English game's many cogs suitably oiled.
Ticket revenue is the only revenue stream available to ER 2015, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Rugby Football Union, who must pay a not-so-insignificant hosting fee of £80m. In a bid to cover that cost and generate what they hope will be a £100m profit, organisers hope to sell 2.9m tickets - that works out as an average of 60,400 per game. Only five stadiums on the long list can accommodate that number of people - Twickenham, Wembley, Millennium Stadium, Olympic Stadium and Old Trafford - which suggests they can expect to host many games between them and underlines the fact that organisers must squeeze as much revenue as possible out of the other chosen venues.
As much as it would be nice to see the 24,000 capacity Welford Road play its part and no matter how well suited it may appear for a clash between the likes of Fiji and Georgia - why not aim bigger? If this tournament is marketed right and the population and the tens of thousands of overseas fans expected to visit the country are engaged sufficiently then there is no reason why the 32,000 capacity King Power Stadium - just over the road from Welford Road cannot be packed to the rafters for such a fixture. Just remember the demand for all sorts of obscure sports during the Olympics and Paralympics.
An ambitious stadium plan and a fan-friendly ticketing policy should maximise the number of people exposed to the sport and sow the seed of success in terms of attendances at rugby grounds the following season and the number of people embracing the sport as a player, coach, official or volunteer.
It is an approach that should be familiar to Premiership clubs who have long opted to take big games to larger stadiums that offer them larger exposure and more importantly greater financial rewards. With only a handful of Premiership clubs making a profit they should be embracing every effort to boost the popularity of the sport which in turn should benefit all levels of the game. A successful England side will also help no end - no pressure lads.
And it is not like the traditional heartlands of the sport are going to be bystanders as the tournament plays out. Expect all the country's leading clubs to play key roles as training bases for the world's best sides when they descend on England in three years' time. The clubs will be asked to play their part and they should answer that call enthusiastically knowing that their efforts to generate the kind of unforgettable feel-good factor that engulfed New Zealand last year will be just as important as the action inside the stadiums when it comes to leaving a lasting legacy.
ESPNscrum assistant editor Tom Hamilton insists they got it wrong:
The organisers of the 2015 World Cup had a "moral obligation" to use rugby stadia in the global gathering that will be hosted on English soil in three years time. That's the view of former Rugby Football Union chairman Martyn Thomas and it's hard to argue with him.
Welford Road's omission from the 17-ground long list has caused concern for good reason as it was a ground that was included in the original bid document that won the right the host the tournament. One of England's proudest rugby strongholds boasts a 24,000 capacity, with plans to increase this by 3,000 in time for 2015, and is situated in the rugby heartland of Leicester. While the city could still be represented through the King Power Stadium, the omission of the Tigers' traditional home is a poor call from England Rugby 2015.
The 2011 World Cup was hailed as a huge success - a tournament that included five venues with a capacity less than that at Welford Road. That competition turned over a profit of £90m. While ER2015 needs to sell considerably more tickets to break even in three years time, including just two traditional rugby stadia on the shortlist - Kingsholm and Twickenham - the tournament has started on a sour note.
The inclusion of the Leicester City's King Power Stadium over Welford Road reeks of corporate pressure and makes IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset's statement that they have picked "iconic stadia, steeped in sporting folklore" laughable. Yes the Crumbie Stand at the Tigers' ground is antiquated, but opposite it is imposing and structurally superb Cat Stand - built in 2009 with surely one eye on the 2015 World Cup. ER 2015's stipulation that the pitch size is too small at Welford Road is also irrelevant. This is a ground that has hosted the Springboks, Argentina and Australia in recent years.
The Tigers also deserve recognition - this is a club that has formed the crux of many an England team over the years. It is not a mere sentimental choice to pick Welford Road - a historical ground such as the Recreation Ground was never in the running - but as Thomas says, it is a "moral" one. It all depends on how ER2015 want this World Cup to be remembered - do they want future generations to look back on it as a tournament that turned a profit at the expense of rugby's values or one that was all-inclusive and embraced everything that is great about this country's rugby heritage.
If a tournament is concerned about legacy - as RFU CEO Ian Ritchie recently alluded to when he claimed that building lasting benefits from the tournament was more "important than selling all the match tickets" - then the decision to turn away from Leicester is the wrong one. Had Welford Road been given the nod, it was never going to see the All Blacks or England turning out but it is hard to imagine that the King Power - with just 6,000 more seats than the Tigers' ground - would fare any better when hosting a game between two less-fancied rugby nations.
There's now pressure on ER2015 to reconsider their decision and here's hoping they admit they were wrong, back Welford Road and in the process, guarantee a rugby-loving boisterous and passionate crowd is present at whatever games are player in Leicester in three years time at one of England's greatest rugby stadiums.
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