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Rugby World Cup 2015: What it means for England and the sport

In six months time England will kick off versus Fiji in the first match of RWC 2015, but will it capture the imagination of a nation?

Walking up those concrete steps for the first time and seeing the stadium awash with white shirts must be a beautiful moment. Pulling on that same shirt adorned with the red rose, and then running out of the tunnel onto the pristine grass pitch, to be greeted by an 80,000-strong passionate home support must be something else entirely.

You only have to look back at six-year old mascot Harry Westlake before the England v Italy Six Nations match, where he was pictured alongside the players with hand on chest belting out the national anthem at Twickenham, to see how patriotic followers of the sport can be.

Although rugby hasn’t traditionally had the razzmatazz and commercial glitz which premier league football specialises in, it is worth remembering the oval balled game only turned professional in 1995; a whole three years after England’s Premiership division was formed. So with that in mind, is rugby finally coming of age on the cusp of the 2015 World Cup?

To understand what position rugby in England finds itself in, it is appropriate to go back to 1991 and see how things looked when we were first involved in being a host nation.

Rory Underwood played on the wing for England throughout the tournament, and to this day still holds the record of being England’s all-time top tryscorer. When asked for his thoughts, he said: “I’m really looking forward to the RWC in England this year and I remember in ’91 what an experience it was playing in a home World Cup.

“However, it wasn’t until after the tournament had finished I realised how big it had been. Whilst we were together during the tournament we were actually quite cosseted from the outside world.

“We were aware there was a growing interest from the general public and the media but had no idea how big it had become. For months after the tournament had finished, I was repeatedly stopped by strangers who recognised me and told me that although they were not rugby supporters they were glued to the TV, cheering us on.

“Still to this day, people talk to me about the ’91 World Cup and debate whether the David Campese ‘deliberate knock on’ should have been a penalty try!”

So it is clear to see England’s number two sport has the ability to grab the attention of the general public during during major international tournaments. But what about lasting foundations, to build on the initial sparks of interest? Underwood added: “There is no doubt that our performance in that home World Cup was a catalyst for a generation of new rugby players. The increase in kids going to mini rugby was huge and from visiting various rugby clubs around the country I hear how well their mini rugby section has blossomed since that time.

“Legacy takes many forms and although I’m proud of all the various influences the ’91 World Cup had…a personal favourite is hearing from parents who’d come up and tell me they’d named their son after me!”

Aside from having children named Rory, it is important to back up the time, energy and finances invested by delivering tangible results. This does not just mean results on the pitch; but heightened attendance and participation figures coupled with monetary return on investment are key concerns.

According to financial firm Ernst & Young, the 2015 Rugby World Cup could add £1 billion to GDP, generating a total output of £2.2 billion partly thanks to an estimated record 470,000 visiting fans from across the globe.

Paul Morgan, Communications Director at Premiership Rugby, said: “While Premiership Rugby regards the World Cup as a golden opportunity for the game in England we simply don’t know if this will lead to an increase in attendances. Legacy from Rugby World Cup and the RFU has focused on participation rather than increasing the supporter base but all clubs in Aviva Premiership will be engaging in many and varied activities before, during and after the tournament so they will be in the perfect position to capitalise on increased interest in rugby during and after the event.

“There are no guarantees with this and we cannot afford to presume, so it will take a lot of hard work from our clubs to translate the interest into new spectators. Even increasing attendances by 1-2 percent takes a huge amount of hard work. Saracens, Sale Sharks and Wasps have recently moved into new, magnificent stadiums while Exeter Chiefs and Bath Rugby have just increased their capacity and both Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints will do the same in the summer. So clubs in the Aviva Premiership are perfectly placed to make the most of it. The recent 4.2 percent increase in attendances show what an attractive product the 12 clubs are producing on a week by week basis.

“Both Gloucester Rugby and Exeter Chiefs are two of the most vibrant clubs in world rugby, so they’ll see a particular added benefit of being match venues. They both have deep roots in their local community, strong fan bases and wonderful commercial support from their cities.

“We would expect them to put on Rugby World Cup matches that will live long in the memory. They are the heartlands of rugby union in England.”

Those majestic moments, such as the Jonny Wilkinson winning drop goal for England in the 2003 final, or the sight of Jonah Lomu running over Mike Catt and others on the way to scoring four tries in the 1995 semi-final, can define a tournament. But for those who manage to play in the Rugby World Cup, albeit not in the later stages, they have different and more personal abiding memories.

Dave Tiueti is a former Tongan international who got 21 caps for his country, and that included three 1999 Rugby World Cup appearances. It was also partly held in England, and Twickenham holds special relevance for Tiueti. He said: “My best rugby experience without a doubt was not just making the squad for the world cup, but to then go on to score against England at the home of rugby, it was unbelievable. Some of the other players were really taken aback and surprised by how massive the stadium was.

“I had a feeling I was going to make it into the squad because I had been playing well at Bristol and had a couple of good games for Tonga the season before, but when I received the phone call from the chairman telling me the news I was made up.

“Our players back then were enjoying the atmosphere, probably a bit more than playing, because for some of them it was the first time they had travelled to England. We only had a small amount of Tonga fans here compared to the likes of England or France because it is so far away, so we mixed with our fans a lot more by bringing them into the hotel and soaking up the tournament fever.

“Just think of what the London 2012 Olympics was like for the country when it was taking place; hopefully the World Cup will have the same affect. It will be a massive opportunity for English rugby, especially for grassroots participation and for getting new fans and players into pro clubs. They can take advantage of the exposure and possibly attract new signings off the back of the tournament.”

Morgan agreed with Tiueti’s sentiments by stating that Aviva Premiership clubs work tirelessly to bring the best talent from around the world to England while developing many players who are ready to play for England at test level. “As a result, we have seen this season that Aviva Premiership rugby has never been more vibrant, exciting and competitive.” he added.

In terms of which country will physically lift the Webb Ellis trophy on 31 October and be crowned world champions, Tiueti’s beloved Tonga side have their work cut out. “We beat France in 2011 and we all know they made it to the final against the All Blacks, so anything could happen.” he quipped.

The former Ospreys player of the season said: “I still have the big three of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia from the southern hemisphere as front runners in my book.

“If England win it even better…they should be right there at the end stages anyway but because it is at home they have that added dimension”

Walking back down those concrete steps knowing England are rugby world champions would be sweet enough, but you sense the tournament could capture the imagination of the nation regardless.

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