A year on from the Rugby World Cup 2015 in England and many people are happily reminiscing about the games they attended and their best memories from the tournament. But what has been the real impact in terms of improving the sport’s popularity and profile in a football dominated country?
370 miles separates the southernmost club (Exeter Chiefs) and the northernmost (Newcastle Falcons) in the Aviva Premiership but a majority of clubs now are clustered in the West Country and the Midlands. Despite the aims of the Rugby World Cup legacy this may be hindering the growth of Rugby Union in England. Promotions for Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Rugby have created a four-strong contingent in the South West. With Worcester Warriors also returning to the Premiership and Wasps’ relocation to Coventry, East and West Midlands are now strongly represented.
The World Cup commendably attempted to take the sport across the country, to places like Brighton and Milton Keynes. Unfortunately a stadium map of World Cup venues does match quite closely that of Premiership clubs. Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds were the only cities representing the north, all of which have/do host top level rugby. It is difficult to compare demand for scarce World Cup games to normal league matches but it suggests the game could grow in the north. Yorkshire Carnegie, Rotherham Titans and Doncaster Knights all play in the second tier Championship. They all have been pushing for promotion in recent years and were all in the play-offs in 2015/16. Newcastle’s St James’ Park attracted over 50,000 for three World Cup matches, suggesting there is a big audience in the north-east.
So why does this not translate into regular attendance? Primarily it is because Rugby sides play in small stadiums. Only three sides (Leicester Tigers, Wasps and Bristol) have stadiums with over 20,000 capacity. Sale Sharks and Newcastle Falcons rarely managed to attract more than 7000 supporters to home games last season, so it would be near impossible to justify using a bigger ground. Looking at Wasps who moved to the Ricoh Arena, attendances have levelled out in and around 15,000. Still only half full. But as Harlequins and Saracens have regularly demonstrated at Twickenham and Wembley, crowds of 70,000+ are possible in the Premiership.
Followers of the Pro 12, and perhaps Super Rugby too, would probably advise against regionalisation however. The creation of ‘franchise’ teams and mergers of local rivals e.g. Neath and Swansea into the Ospreys has not been universally popular by any means. In any case the idea of say Bristol and Bath, or Leicester and Northampton joining forces is pretty laughable.
For now then, the growth of top level rugby union in England is reliant on sides in non-traditional areas rising through the leagues into the Premiership. This moves into a whole different debate around promotion from the Championship . Doncaster nearly managed it last season. Sides like Jersey and London Scottish have been building quietly under the radar. It will take a concerted, long-term grassroots effort to raise the level of lower league clubs so they can eventually compete with the elite. The Rugby World Cup legacy hopefully has been the catalyst for this.