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It is a sunny day at Twickenham and the vast stadium is empty aside from the two mowers trimming the emerald grass. But the calm will not last. More than 2m fans are about to descend on the southwest London stadium and the 12 others being used for the Rugby World Cup.
In the bowels of the stadium, where the organising committee has an office, preparations are intense. The World Cup will be a unique test of the UK’s ability to hold a top sporting event.
Unlike the London Olympics, which lasted 17 days, the 48 matches of the World Cup stretch over six weeks across England and Wales.
“When I started at the Rugby Football Union in 2011, one of the big attractions for me was that the World Cup was coming,” says Stephen Brown, who heads England Rugby 2015, the World Cup organisers. “I had some sleepless nights. But as a fan, you could feel it was going to be very special.”
By the time the tournament kicks off, when England take on Fiji at Twickenham at 8pm on September 18, it is likely to have broken all records. Tickets worth a total of more than £200m have been sold. There were 650,000 applications for the pool match between England and Australia alone.
As many as 460,000 tourists have booked trips, and the UK economy could be boosted by more than £980m, say accountants EY. From expected revenues, after paying £80m to World Rugby for the right to hold the tournament, the RFU should still have enough left — at least £15m — to boost grassroots rugby.
“We started building and investing for the World Cup’s legacy in 2012,” says Brown. What impact will it have? What will its knock-on effect be for the game’s popularity? “The question I ask”, Brown says, “is if my daughter watches the World Cup, wants to start playing rugby and walks into my local club, will she be able to play?”
For the sport more generally, any success of this World Cup will hopefully mean an increase in rugby’s popularity. In the US for example, Universal Sports and NBC will broadcast at least nine of the 2015 tournament’s matches live. South African rugby would hope to benefit from greater involvement from its majority black community. The next World Cup in 2019 is in Japan, an experiment in expanding the sport’s reach in Asia.
This World Cup has been more than six years in the making. The pitch alone at Twickenham has taken three years for the groundsmen to perfect. As part of a £75m facelift, bulldozers took up the old turf and laid undersoil heating. After shovelling on a layer of sand to improve the drainage, they laid a new hybrid pitch, with plastic strands injected deep into the soil to give the grass roots something to wrap around. The result: a pitch that is more difficult to tear up and is 97 per cent natural grass. Before kick-off, it will be trimmed to 4cm high — slightly longer than a football pitch.
Outside the stadium, giant white tents will house the media and hospitality suites. Inside — possibly to the dismay of England fans — Twickenham’s red-and-white livery is being taken down.
For World Cup decoration the grounds are strictly neutral, with no team colours enjoying home advantage. The stadiums are dressed in the tournament’s lime green, pink and blue.
Brown’s concern is infrastructure. “We have done the best that we can, and we hope people will see that we have done our best, but you never know with transport.”
The warm-up matches, involving England, France and Ireland at Twickenham and the Barbarians and Samoa at the Olympic stadium, have provided important tests. But the chance remains of gridlock as fans converge on Twickenham for the opening game during rush hour.
“We will have 140 coaches,” says Brown. “We have special arrangements with Transport for London, Network Rail and South West Trains. We are going to close the A316. We cannot physically do any more, but it is a pinch point.” For Cardiff matches, 83 trains will move fans in and out of the city.
Some fans face a long trudge to their match. Those diverted to Richmond railway station to ease congestion at Twickenham will walk for 45 minutes to get to the stadium. The walk through Birmingham to Villa Park is roughly the same distance. It is planned that volunteer singers and performers will line the routes. Two-thirds of the 6,000 unpaid volunteers who will guide fans during the tournament provide similar help at rugby clubs.
From a pink, lime and blue corner office at Twickenham, operations chief Neil Snowball oversees tournament organisation. In front of a bank of computer screens and telephones, he manages teams up and down the country.
“There will be lots of different things going on at the same time,” he says. “On any one day you have the matches with the venues and getting the public in and out. Then you have the trophy tour and the team movements.” The logistics are considerable: transport for each stadium, security, medical X-ray machines being taken to the grounds and even the glass in some stadium boxes needing to be changed to allow television cameras to capture the expressions on the faces of team coaches.
Snowball was getting ready to enact a plan to protect sponsors. The organisers are obliged to buy up advertising hoardings within 500m of the stadiums to prevent guerrilla marketing. Snowball’s team will remind players not to pull any fast ones. Manu Tuilagi, the 18-stone England centre, was fined £5,000 for wearing a visibly branded mouthguard at the last World Cup.
Snowball brought with him expertise gained during the London Olympics, where he was the head of sport operations. The legacy from the 2012 Games runs through the organising team. “At the beginning, maybe 50-60 per cent [of the team] were from the Olympics,” says Rachel Brace, head of human resources. “They were filling leadership roles, especially in areas such as the VIP programme, transport, logistics and security.” As the team has swelled, the proportion has shrunk to around a quarter.
The previous World Cup in New Zealand began in crisis, with more than 170,000 tickets unsold a week before kick-off. By the end of the event, 1.48m tickets were sold, not enough for the New Zealand Rugby Union to make a profit on the tournament. For the upcoming World Cup, 2.2m tickets out of a possible 2.45m have been sold before kick-off.
As for the groundsmen who worked on the Twickenham pitch, they have visited more than 200 rugby clubs up and down the country to advise on playing surfaces. Some 750 more state secondary schools will be playing rugby by 2019 as a result of World Cup funds, and more than £1m is being spent to train coaches for grassroots rugby.
Clubs at all levels are being upgraded. “We have made quite extensive capital investment on the physical facilities, changing rooms and so on,” says Brown.
The World Cup, so long in the making, has laid deep roots.