Tuesday, August 12, 2014

European Rugby: Opportunity Lost as London hosts Challenge Cup Final

Image: Gloucester Rugby
Familiarity was the theme as the new governing body of European professional rugby named the Stoop in London as the host venue of the inaugural European Rugby Challenge Cup earlier today. The announcement also saw Twickenham named as the host venue of the European Championship Cup, the name of the tournament replacing the Heineken Cup. The decision sees Italy miss out on what was to be the country's first time hosting a European club final while the opportunity to prepare for Rugby World Cup 2015 has not eventuated as rather than allocating the Challenge Cup Final to a host venue it will be at the Stoop also in London. London has consequently been allocated the two finals matches of the season before Rugby World Cup 2015.

As the host nation of Rugby World Cup 2015 England has the responsibility of preparing itself and its people for the tournament. In order to host such an event measures have to be taken to engage with the population to increase interest and help urge people to attend matches and purchase merchandise. 

For the people employed to see that England 2015 can be as successful as possible there is a need for them and for other organizations operating professional rugby to actively prepare their audiences. Despite the RFU being the world's richest union such engagement has not occurred outside of the capital. 

While there are rugby supporters who are less than happy with London having been allocated the finals of the European Rugby Championship and the European Rugby Challenge Cup it does, nonetheless, follow logic to have it played in England given the same country will host the Rugby World Cup four months later. Notwithstanding the option has seen Milan left in the dark after it had been allocated hosting rights to the 2015 Heineken Cup Final.

The loser on the day is therefore the sport of rugby as an opportunity of putting growth ahead of profit has been ignored. The coming season will be the twentieth of the professional era and, despite Italy having been a part of all twenty, it will see the wait continue for Italy to be allocated hosting rights to a final. 

Twickenham, on the other hand, will host a fifth final after having hosted the Heineken Cup Finals in  2004, 2007 and 2012. While it is a much larger number than the finals hosted by Italy, Scotland or France it is by no means an over representation given Wales has hosted seven finals. France, as the host union of Rugby World Cup 2007, did not nonetheless have hosting rights to the 2007 Heineken Cup or Challenge Cup.

Finals in the former European Challenge Cup were more concentrated in England with ten having taken place in the country. The Stoop will host a fifth final after it previously did so in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2012. Other English locations to have hosted finals include the host venues of Aviva Premiership clubs Gloucester, London Irish and London Welsh.

London continues to be not only the centre of the English rugby universe but have a monopoly over all big match rugby played. Indeed convenience and not a willingness to expand has seen familiarity reign as shown by the choice of having the Stoop, located in London, being chosen to host the European Rugby Challenge Cup Final. 

The opportunity existed for a collaborated effort with Rugby World Cup Ltd to see a World Cup 2015 venue allocated the fixture. A number of the small-medium sized venues could have been acquired for the May 2 date which could have seen a better prepared local population from a city such as Birmingham, Brighton, Exeter, Leeds or Milton Keynes.  

The inability to go down such as path is the latest in what has been a continuous policy of non-action when it comes to expansion. The national rugby competition, the Aviva Premiership, will have five teams with London associations out of twelve in the season before hosting the World Cup. No test matches will be played at a venue other than Twickenham by England before the tournament and only one pool match featuring England will be at a different venue.

Club sides in England have suffered as a result of such policies as the market has not been encouraged by the test side playing in numerous locations. With France playing outside of Paris numerous clubs have replicated the test side by hosting matches at the largest stadiums in France nationwide. Such a manner of thinking remains non-existent in England as no Aviva Premiership or European matches are moved to big stadiums other than those found in London. 

London will host a total of seventeen out of forty-eight matches at Rugby World Cup 2015 and do so at a record setting three venues. Cardiff will host eight matches despite not being English while the north of England will host just six. Since winning the Rugby World Cup in 2003 the RFU has hosted every host test match at Twickenham. 

1 comment:

  1. Very good article Paul, as always.

    I think it's an extremely narrow minded and cowardly decision to overlook Milan for the final, and to give it to London once again. Why do we fans have to wait for YET ANOTHER YEAR to see Italy host a final (in the fantastic stadium that is San Siro), when we've already been waiting for almost 20 years for this to happen (hmmm, long waits for positive developments in rugby-- sound familiar)? In fact, even a year's wait is no guarantee-- the administrators will probably go for Cardiff in 2016, Paris in 2017 etc etc!... No vision from the people in charge whatsoever. Apart from the possibility to raise the profile of rugby in England ahead of the World Cup 2015 (which frankly doesn't wash with me, given they've awarded the final to an overly familiar venue), the decision is clearly almost all to do with money. How did the amateur game of rugby fall into this "need to make money and profit at all costs" trap?

    Judging by the comments fans have posted on various websites, there are a lot of people unhappy with the decision... If the administrators continue to make blunders such as these, it's only a matter of time before they alienate their existing fan base and have no new takers either (because they'll have failed to invest sufficient time and effort in new rugby markets such as Italy). I hope they realize the error of their ways before it's too late...