Tickets for the 2015 Rugby World Cup will go on general sale this week ahead of another major date in the countdown to the tournament – the ‘one year to go’ milestone on September 18th.
The next 12 months will be key to all those sides hoping to deliver their best on the sport’s biggest stage but it is infinitely more important to English rugby in general.
England have not hosted the World Cup since 1991 and with the game going increasingly global they cannot expect it to return for at least another 20 years. The Rugby Football Union will be painfully aware of that fact and the urgent need to leverage the honour in order to boost engagement and participation at all levels of the game for years to come.
The RFU are determined to do just that and their RWC 2015: Lead up & Legacy plan outlines seven ‘areas of focus’ including a campaign to bring former players back to the game, an initiative aimed at introducing the sport to hundreds of new schools and capital investment that will improve facilities around the country.
As admirable as these efforts and the significant the investment being delivered are, the most powerful marketing tool at their disposal is the elite game. England’s success in the autumn internationals, Six Nations, World Cup warm-ups and ultimately the tournament itself will be key to attracting new players, supporters, referees and volunteers, but the rugby calendar demands that English club rugby lays the foundation.
Step forward the Aviva Premiership. League chiefs know that the buzz surrounding the World Cup offers them a great opportunity to showcase their own competition and each club will also be hoping to tap into the sport’s heightened profile in order to bolster their gates and bottom lines.
In order to increase the fan base, clubs must serve up an exciting rugby product which for many, including those casual fans that are yet to get to grips with the intricacies of the game, equates to fast, running rugby and a torrent of tries.
The opening round of this season’s Premiership went some way to delivering that with the six fixtures producing 34 tries on sun-hardened grounds around the country – last year’s first round produced just 26.
That is the kind of ‘inspirational’ rugby that the International Rugby Board are convinced can propel the sport to greater heights and will hopefully have people not only talking about the sport but watching, tuning in or playing.
But just as important to long-term growth is fierce competition and woefully one-sided games like Exeter’s mauling of new boys London Welsh will ensure the phones are quiet in the Exiles’ season ticket office on Monday morning.
There was evidence that that the World Cup is already having an impact with the London Double Header attracting 66,164 supporters through the Twickenham turnstiles – the largest crowd for the traditional season opener since 2010, at the start of another season leading into a World Cup, when 75,512 packed into HQ.
But getting fans into the ground is one thing, getting them to come back is another. A superb matchday experience is of paramount importance when it comes to repeat visits, and something that continues to elude most clubs, but excellence on the field can often trump any shortcomings elsewhere.
Magical moments will often live a lot longer in the memory and the opening fixtures provided plenty. Powerful Wasps back-row Ashley Johnson displayed some deft kicking skills to set up a try for winger Christian Wade during their nail-biter against Saracens at Twickenham and his ingenuity was matched by one of Leicester Tigers’ new recruits Robert Barbieri.
The Italian international chose to pin the ball between his ankles at a scrum on Newcastle’s line before bouncing along behind the Tigers’ dominant pack before team-mate David Mele was on hand to touch down for the score. Expect to see it at a rugby ground near you very soon.
But what about those able to deliver time and time again in the same game? That can lead to hero worship and not only the priceless loyalty of supporters and viewers but also the urge among players old and new to lace up their boots in the hope of replicating what they have seen.
Hat-tricks for Northampton’s George North, Leicester’s Niki Goneva and Saracens’ David Strettle not only ensured English rugby’s top flight got off to a flying start but also cemented their status as stars of the league and fuelled the try glut that saw rugby union claim many of the column inches left vacant by the lack of Premier League football.
Those scene-stealers owe a debt of gratitude to their respective fly-halves – Stephen Myler, Freddie Burns and Owen Farrell. Those in-form playmakers also happen to be leading contenders to wear the England No.10 shirt along with Bath’s George Ford and Sale’s Danny Cipriani. Their season-long battle to earn a nod from Stuart Lancaster is another reason to make an appointment to view the Premiership throughout this season.
The hunt for England honours in general – from 1 to 15 – is a huge trump card for the Premiership and one that should benefit both the domestic and international game over the coming months and also ensure that tickets for the World Cup will not be on sale for long.