Allow me to paint you a picture. Let us pretend for a second that England’s doomed campaign to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup was not completely annihilated by the Russians, but in fact was successful in granting the birthplace of football their first chance to host the coveted tournament since the glory days of 1966. Now, we’ll fast forward a couple of years to the long-awaited announcement of which national stadia will have the honour of hosting a World Cup match or matches. As we run down the list, we nod in acceptance at grounds such as Wembley, the Emirates Stadium, Anfield and the Millennium Stadium. However, there appears to be one glaring error here: where is Old Trafford? Surely the home of the most decorated football team in modern British football, boasting the largest capacity of any Premiership ground alongside a glittering sporting history, must be playing some part in the international tournament and allowing football fans the world over to experience the atmosphere at such a renowned stadium? Well, apparently not if the RFU has anything to do with it…
This scenario may be a false one, but a very similar situation shocked the British rugby public last week after Leicester Tiger’s Welford Road was omitted from a list of 17 potential stadia to host matches in the 2015 Rugby World Cup on British soil. Whilst the list does include expected choices such as Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium and Wembley, the non-inclusion of Welford Road has sparked a heated debate about the selection criteria and provoked disapproval from the majority of rugby fans and pundits.
As already alluded to, the omission of Welford Road is akin to ignoring Old Trafford in the instance of a domestic FIFA World Cup. Leicester are the most decorated English club of the professional era, having amassed an impressive nine English Premiership titles alongside a highly successful European history- until May this year, they were the only side to have retained the Heineken Cup in consecutive years. The hallowed turf at Welford Road has not only seen key matches played on it, but also been graced by some of the greatest English players of all time: the likes of Martin Johnson, Neil Back and Sir Clive Woodward have all plied their trade at the Tigers. As such, to ignore the club and the ground is to undermine the RFU’s wishes to exhibit the greatness of English rugby to the world.
Of course, when hosting a sporting event as huge as the Rugby World Cup, (it is now recognised as the third most-watched sporting occasion on the planet, behind the Olympics and the footballing equivalent) the quality and accessibility of facilities must be taken into account. It would be foolish to compare these facets within football and rugby grounds across England, the large contrast in available funds ensuring that most lower league football grounds are structurally similar to some top Aviva Premiership club stadia. Welford Road, however, does not come close to falling into this category. The Leicester-based stadium boasts a capacity of 24,000, making it by far and away the largest purpose-built rugby ground in the country, with the recent introduction of the Caterpillar Stand adding to the already impressive facilities at the club.
The question of whether Leicester are able to host games on the scale of the Rugby World Cup is negated when you realise the size and magnitude of many previous games hosted at the ground. In recent years, the Tigers have played international matches against touring Australia and South Africa sides, the latter marking the official unveiling of the Caterpillar Stand and attracting a capacity crowd of 24,000. Similarly, the ticket office regularly sells out of tickets well in advance of fixtures, and weekly attendance rarely falls below 19,000, yet few fans would complain that the facilities are ever put under pressure or cannot meet standards during a hectic matchday. In stark contrast, Gloucester’s Kingsholm (the only domestic rugby ground on the shortlist) has a capacity of 16,500, making it almost 8,000 seats smaller than Welford Road. As recent as the 1999 RWC, Kingsholm was not included as a venue due to its size, whereas Welford Road (then boasting a capacity several thousand smaller than today) was picked to host Italy vs Tonga. These statistics appear to make the claim that Kingsholm is more capable of RWC status than Welford Road appear somewhat nonsensical.
Even accessibility, which remains another key issue when hosting large-scale events, immediately seems to pose few logistical problems. Leicester is a mere 90 minute train journey from London St Pancras, and the stadium then just a brisk ten minute walk from Leicester station.
In a Q&A on the BBC Sport website, former England international Jeremy Guscott stated that ‘if you put it to the players of, let’s say Japan and Fiji, if they would rather play at Leicester City’s football ground or Welford Road, they would all pick Welford Road because of the association with rugby.’ His statement makes complete sense; if you were going to in the World Cup and represent your country, would you rather play at a world-renowned rugby ground or at a Championship football stadium that may mean nothing in nations with little interest in the ‘round-ball’ game.
Similarly, rugby fans from Britain and overseas are going to be more inclined to go to a match between two lesser nations if it is at the home of the Leicester Tigers, rather than Leicester City. Leicester is a rugby-loving city, and there is little doubt that fans would pay good money to see any RWC match, regardless of the fixture. However, the decision to host these fixtures at the King Power Stadium as opposed to Welford Road will undoubtedly have riled many traditional rugby fans whose decision now may be to stay away.
Leicester City’s football ground is not the only seemingly absurd choice for possible World Cup host: grounds such as Sunderland’s Stadium of Light and StadiumMK of the Milton Keynes Dons hardly boast a rich rugby heritage, and whilst it is clear that the RFU wishes to spread the interest of rugby to places in England that it may yet have reached, there is a serious chance that attendances at some matches will be affected by these choices. Equally, Bristol City’s Ashton Gate has a capacity over 4,000 short of Welford Road’s, whilst the average crowd at the ground is less than 17,000- I fail to see why this ground has been chosen, even if Bristol is a place more inclined to rugby than those in the North East or elsewhere.
There is no appeal system in the RFU’s selection process, so Leicester has had to come to terms with the fact that their globally-renowned ground will not be hosting any World Cup fixtures in 2015. Tigers’ chief executive Simon Cohen commented on his disappointment by stating that ‘it [Welford Road] is an iconic rugby stadium with a great atmosphere and it is a blow to our pride that it has not been selected’ before claiming that the reason behind the decision is that ‘money is the driving force now’. The East Midlands juggernaut will rise from the ashes of this disappointment, and the ground will undoubtedly see some huge matches in the next twelve months alone, but the omission will certainly have a lasting effect on a club and fanbase that prides itself on being the best the country has to offer.
The inclusion of one particular sporting stadium by the RFU did help to partially satiate the shock of Welford Road’s omission however. The prospect of key 2015 Rugby World Cup fixtures being played at the now iconic Olympic Stadium is an exciting one that positively follows up on Lord Coe’s mantra to ‘Inspire a Generation’. The decision to include the East End stadium appears to support the concept that this can become a true sporting venue that boasts the wide-ranging sporting excellence our nation can exhibit.