The London Olympic Stadium and English soccer’s Wembley home were named on Monday as potential hosts of 2015 rugby World Cup matches, sparking a backlash as organizers plumped for seating capacity over rugby heritage.
Twickenham, home to English rugby, and the Millennium Stadium in the Welsh capital Cardiff also featured on the 17-strong list of grounds released by England Rugby 2015, who will cut it to a final list of 12 next year.
However, the decision to overlook the 24,000-capacity Welford Road, home to England’s best-supported rugby club Leicester, disappointed the club and grass roots fans around the country.
Gloucester’s Kingsholm in western England was the only English club rugby ground selected in the list, that also included Manchester United’s Old Trafford, Leicester City’s 32,000-capacity home and 10 other club soccer stadiums.
“Welford Road has hosted many major occasions over the years, including visits from South Africa, Australia and Argentina national teams in recent seasons,” Leicester club chairman Peter Tom said in a statement.
“It is home to the best-supported and most successful club in the history of the professional game in this country and, as such, we believe is worthy of Rugby World Cup status.
“That the organisers of RWC2015 do not think this an appropriate venue is disappointing and confusing both for the professional club game in this country and for its supporters.”
England Rugby 2015 Chief Operating Officer Ross Young said that the pitch at Welford Road was not big enough to meet World Cup specifications once television camera positions were factored in.
“We’re talking about a world event and we’re talking about giving as many people as possible access to games,” Young said.
“I don’t think it’s an indictment at all on the club game in this country,” he added, noting that rugby clubs such as Saracens had taken matches to Wembley to accommodate bigger crowds.
Organisers have set an ambitious target of selling 2.9 million tickets for the 48 World Cup matches in September and October 2015 as they try to generate $162-million in profits and that drive for profit was a part of the ground selection criteria.
Ian Ritchie, CEO of the Rugby Football Union and on the board of the union’s 2015 World Cup company, said the decision had been an entirely practical one.
“It’s not a case of denying their [Leicester’s] contribution, both historically and in terms of what they do for the game now,” Ritchie told reporters at a Twickenham briefing.
“Of course you recognize what Leicester have done and that they do a fantastic job in relation to the community but there was a very extensive audit of all the grounds and Leicester was found not to satisfy on all levels.
“There were issues with space around the ground, size of the pitch, other facilities, how it works with broadcaster requirements etc.
“We want to get large numbers of people going to matches and then there were clearly some issues with Welford Road that were not capable of being addressed before 2015.”
The tournament and the inclusion of rugby sevens in the 2016 Olympics are seen as a golden opportunity to develop the sport further commercially.
Tournament organizers have been talking to officials from soccer’s Premier League and Football League about trying to overcome the problems of co-ordinating the World Cup and the domestic soccer calendar.
“While we are not in a position to make guarantees at this time we will continue to engage in constructive dialogue with England Rugby 2015 with a view to working towards achieving a satisfactory outcome for all parties,” the leagues said in a joint statement.
Young noted that France had used a number of soccer stadiums when it hosted the 2007 World Cup. A maximum of 12 venues to stage games in 2015 will be selected from the list next year.
Villa Park, Birmingham
Brighton Community Stadium, Brighton
Ashton Gate, Bristol
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Coventry Stadium, Coventry
Pride Park, Derby
Elland Road, Leeds
Leicester City Stadium, Leicester
Olympic Stadium, London
Twickenham Stadium, London
Wembley Stadium, London
Old Trafford, Manchester
Stadiummk, Milton Keynes
St James’ Park, Newcastle
St Mary’s Stadium, Southampton
Stadium of Light, Sunderland