by Alex Lowe
I HAVE spent most of this week swimming against the tide of public opinion over England Rugby 2015’s decision to scrap Welford Road as a World Cup venue. I think it is the right call. The reaction from Leicester Tigers at being dumped has been emotional and, if I’m honest, a little self-righteous.
The club’s chairman Peter Tom tugged at the heart-strings as he detailed Leicester’s contribution to rugby in England, rolling out the names of Sir Clive Woodward and Martin Johnson, as if that earned them World Cup matches by right. The Tigers indicated ER2015 had betrayed the rugby history of Leicester and England in order to chase the filthy lucre elsewhere.
Elsewhere, incidentally, includes a stadium that is a little more that a drop-kick away from Welford Road that is bigger, with better facilities and a pitch that measures up. Yes, England have to guarantee the International Rugby Board £80million but this was not a decision based on money alone.There is only 8,000 difference between the capacities of Welford Road and the King Power Stadium. That is not the deal breaker.
It was the fact that Welford Road’s facilities on and off their small pitch – changing rooms, anti-doping, media facilities – simply didn’t stack up as a venue for the third biggest sporting event in the world.
There are some who are crying foul, citing the fact that Welford Road was included in England’s successful bid to host the tournament. Don’t get me wrong, it is a real shame that the 2015 World Cup will not be stopping off at Welford Road, just as it is a shame there was no room for Exeter’s Sandy Park in this great global rugby festival. But that does not mean we have sold our soul to the devil of football.
The 2007 World Cup, the wonderful carnival adventure around France, was played almost exclusively in the nation’s football grounds. I saw Wales in Nantes, Australia in Montpellier, England in Marseille. Every one of them a football ground, every match sold out, every occasion a joy to behold. Why can we not emulate that?
I have reservations about some of the stadia on the long list – Derby’s Pride Park, Bristol’s Ashton Gate to name but two – but I am not concerned that ER2015 are using football grounds. Northampton were right to throw the weight of their support behind Milton Keynes. Franklin’s Gardens is another citadel of English rugby but the Saints knew it was too small for consideration. But they also recognised the value of having World Cup matches played in their region and so are backing Stadium:MK to make the final shortlist.
And to those doom-mongers who claim there will only be a handful of supporters rattling around St James’ Park or St Mary’s Stadium, have we learned nothing from London 2012? The reason the Olympics and Paralympics were such spectacular sporting occasions was not just because of what happened on the track, in the swimming pool, around the velodrome or down the rowing lake.
They was spectacular because of what happened off it. Venues were transformed, the nation bought into the Games and made them their own. How many people found themselves cheering on equestrian riders, judokas and gymnasts for the first time ever?
So why can we not tap into that same sporting fervour and aim to pack 50,000 Geordies into St James’ Park or 43,000 Brummies into Villa Park. Let’s aim for that, let’s aim for England 2015 to be remembered in the same breath as London 2012. That means looking ahead and setting our sights high not, unfortunately for Welford Road, rewarding feats of the past.