Grounds for excitement at RWC 2015
It’s getting closer all the time. Another major milestone was ticked off last week as an action-packed match schedule and a slate of world-class venues were announced for Rugby World Cup 2015, with rugby fans far and wide set to welcome the sport’s elite players to their own back yard.
Excitement is already building towards kick-off, and here we head around the grounds to find out exactly what to expect when that first whistle sounds.
London will offer a stunning backdrop for the tournament, boasting one of the world’s iconic skylines and a sporting heritage matched by few others. The worlds of rugby, football and athletics will join forces as Twickenham, Wembley Stadium and the Olympic Stadium all host matches.
Twickenham will host the first match, both semi finals and the Final, along with seven further contests, bringing its unique atmosphere to the tournament. England Rugby 2015 Ambassador Will Greenwood played 31 Tests for England at Twickenham and expects a special reception for England supporters and travelling players and fans.
“The last time I missed an England game at Twickenham must be almost a decade ago,” he said. “There are new facilities now, it’s digital, state-of-the-art. They put a show on and the pitch they have brought together there is possibly the best playing surface on the planet. God Save the Queen rings out and the fans congregate in the West Car Park, it’s just a sensational day out. With England performing well, it’s a wonderful place to be.”
New Zealand, the holders of the Webb Ellis Cup and perennial title challengers, will begin the defence of their crown against Argentina at Wembley, one of the iconic destinations in world sport. The home of English football will also host Ireland’s meeting with the Europe 2 qualifiers, having made a name as a rugby venue in recent years thanks to a relationship with Premiership side Saracens.
The Olympic Stadium, a jewel in London’s East End, is set to host five matches, including the Bronze Final and pool matches involving the All Blacks, South Africa, France and Ireland. During the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games the atmosphere generated in the stadium was spectacular and Greenwood expects a repeat in 2015.
“I was at the stadium several times during the Olympics and was lucky enough to see Usain Bolt and Mo Farah compete,” he said. “Whoever runs out there, whatever nation, will have seen what it meant to the Olympians and Paralympians to compete there and the memories will still be very, very fresh come 2015.”
Way out west ... and into Wales
Cardiff is one of the world’s leading rugby destinations and the Millennium Stadium will be a key part of Rugby World Cup 2015. The ground, nestled on the banks of the Taff and the heartbeat of Welsh capital, will stage eight matches at the tournament, including a brace of quarter finals and Wales’ meetings with the Oceania 1 qualifier and Repechage Winner. Match-day in Cardiff is an experience unlike any other and for players and fans alike.
“Beyond Twickenham, no doubt about it, the Millennium Stadium is my favourite ground in the world,” Greenwood said. “I remember playing there in 2001, the first England-Wales fixture in the new stadium. It was Scott Gibbs’ 50th cap for Wales and when he led the team out, the noise was just insane. Absolutely insane. Land of My Fathers belts out. Most of us were humming along, just because it’s such a good tune. The Welsh love their rugby and it’s a great stadium, wonderful. Right in the city centre, and I mean right in the city centre.”
Welsh Rugby Union chairman David Pickering, a director of Rugby World Cup Limited, hailed the announcement as another chapter in a fine year for Wales.
“We are a true rugby nation, this gives our supporters a real and meaningful sense of involvement in one of the greatest of all modern sporting tournaments,” he said. “We can expect an invasion of visitors to our capital city and the surrounding areas. This is great news for Wales as, yet again, we sit at the top table when it comes to hosting major sporting events.”
The Millennium Stadium will also give rugby fans from England’s west country another chance to catch matches at the tournament, although the region’s passionate supporters will also have occasions to savour at Exeter’s impressive Sandy Park and Gloucester’s iconic Kingsholm ground.
The stadiums will split seven matches between them and will offers a glimpse of English rugby culture to travelling fans from Argentina, Scotland, Tonga and Africa.
“It’s a very knowledgable rugby crowd at Exeter and wonderful that the Rugby World Cup will be going to the far corners of our land,” Greenwood said. “I only won at Kingsholm a couple of times and the Shed, my goodness me it’s a great place to play in front of. It’s giving as many people as possible the opportunity to see, after the FIFA World Cup and Olympics, the biggest show in the world roll into town.”
Exeter Chiefs chairman and chief executive Tony Rowe has promised a ‘rugby city’ during the tournament, with plans already underway for a special event.
“I’ve no doubt every game will sell out, but we are also intending to put a big screen in the city centre and turn the whole city centre into a rugby city for the two or three weeks,” he said. “As I said, we have worked very hard both as a rugby club and with the city council to achieve this.
“When we arrive in 2015 there will have been a lot of work put in to make the whole of the city a rugby venue. We are all rugby people down here in the west country, so we know how to do it properly.”
His views were echoed by Gloucester’s chief executive Stephen Vaughan, who added: “In recent years, we’ve worked really hard to establish Kingsholm as a venue capable of staging international rugby. Many international sides have played matches here and Gloucester Rugby, our supporters and the city will welcome the teams we are set to host here with open arms.”
Rugby World Cup 2015 will also head to England’s south coast and the Brighton Community Stadium. The home of Brighton & Hove Albion, the stadium will host two matches from Pool B as South Africa take on the Asia 1 qualifier and Samoa tackle the Americas 2 qualifier.
England Rugby 2015 Ambassador Maggie Alphonsi surveyed the scene in Brighton prior to the venue announcement and expects the football surface to give the powerful Springboks and a free-flowing Samoa room to strut their stuff, and for there to be a number of newcomers enjoying top-class rugby for the first time.
“The south coast will be packed out,” she said. “The capacity of the stadium means that we can get new faces in, to see rugby up close for perhaps the first time. There will be perfect surfaces to allow players the freedom to express themselves. Some of them will have never seen pitches like it. That’s what the ground will deliver.”
Gus Poyet, the manager of Brighton & Hove Albion, is confident that rugby supporters will be welcomed with open arms.
“It shows the quality and the way that we treat people at this stadium,” he said. “We have impressed everybody who has come here, from our own fans, friends and away fans. People who have come here for the first time enjoy being here and it’s a happy place to be. There are no surprises that this stadium has been chosen. It will be amazing for the whole city.”
Slap bang in the middle
Very few regions can boast a rugby history like the Midlands, and Rugby World Cup 2015 will arrive in Leicester, Birmingham and Milton Keynes with plenty of fanfare.
Villa Park in Birmingham has long been one of English football’s most reliable arenas, hosting numerous knockout matches in the FA Cup and also a number of England internationals. The home of Aston Villa, it will stage a heavyweight clash between Samoa and South Africa and will also open its doors to the Wallabies for their meeting with the Repechage Winners.
Birmingham City Council deputy leader Ian Ward hopes to deliver a winning environment in the city, with a lasting impact on rugby in the region. “This is fantastic news for the city and should have a real impact on encouraging people to take up rugby, and sport generally, as we saw during the Olympics,” he said. “We are committed to having a real rugby legacy for the people of Birmingham and the wider region.
“We are also looking to have a fan park for duration of the tournament where families and friends can have a great day out enjoying the rugby and hopefully watching England and the other home nations have a wonderful tournament.”
stadiummk has already established its rugby credentials, hosting several Heineken Cup ties for nearby Northampton Saints, and will offer another state-of-the-art arena for the tournament. France will play their Pool D match against the Americas 1 qualifier at the ground, while Samoa take on the Asia 1 qualifier before the Oceania 1 qualifier and the Repechage Winner square off.
Milton Keynes Council leader Andrew Geary said: “We’re planning to put on a brilliant show for rugby fans and their families, and we look forward to welcoming people from around the world in 2015. It’s a major international sporting event, which well and truly places Milton Keynes on the international sporting map. It will bring a major boost to the local economy and help us to connect grassroots rugby with the elite Game.”
Also at the centre of the action will be the Leicester City Stadium, which will host three matches. A rugby town in every sense of the phrase, Leicester will provide a raucous backdrop as Argentina roll into town to face Tonga and the Africa 1 qualifier, while the encounter between the Americas 1 and Europe 2 qualifiers will also be held at the stadium.
Lawrence Dallaglio, a Rugby World Cup-winner in 2003 and England Rugby 2015 Ambassador, hopes that Leicester will deliver some classic encounters, with a top-class pitch playing its part.
“The grass is cut super short. This is not 1980s rugby anymore, when you couldn’t see your boot for the grass,” he said. “These days it’s like playing on a snooker table. It’s fast, it’s frantic and it’s exciting. It’s exactly what we want the Rugby World Cup to be. As you get to the knockout stages, things tighten up and it’s 12-9, 15-12. What we want, building the atmosphere during the rounds, is 42-40. On fast, flat pitches like that, you’re going to get it.”
England will head north during the Rugby World Cup for a showpiece game at the City of Manchester Stadium, while the tournament will also touch down at Elland Road in Leeds and Newcastle’s St James’ Park.
Stuart Lancaster’s England will tackle the Repechage Winner in Pool A in Manchester and the coach, Cumbrian by birth and a Leeds man in rugby terms, expects a rousing welcome.
“Taking England to the north is something we’ll relish,” he said. “It’s an area that’s full of passion and pride with huge numbers of people playing and involved in the Game, and I know we’ll get great support.”
Elland Road, the home of Leeds United, will stage two matches as Scotland and Italy roll into town to face the Americas 2 and Americas 1 qualifiers respectively, while Newcastle’s rugby fraternity will have plenty to savour. Travelling Scotland fans will create a special atmosphere for their meetings with South Africa and Samoa, while the All Blacks will face Tonga in a repeat of the curtain-raiser at Rugby World Cup 2011.
Leeds United chief executive Shaun Harvey hopes that the tournament will be another special event in Yorkshire’s rugby history. “Yorkshire has a long tradition in providing international rugby players and for being exceptionally strong and vibrant at club level, and we’re looking forward to playing our part in staging an event that will see some of the best players in the world in action here in Yorkshire,” he said.
Greenwood, a die-hard Manchester City fan, can’t wait to see what the north has in store for the tournament and is sure that the north-east – where he went to university – will deliver a welcome like no other to visiting supporters.
“All you need to know about that part of the world is that if you think the rest of the UK is sport mad, then there’s a little microclimate in the north east of England where it’s completely sport obsessed,” he said. “I went to university there and sport rules. For one example take the Great North Run, to see the levels of involvement is quite spectacular.”