The Rugby World Cup – 10 Days on

Sitting in our seats in Wembley Stadium with a beer in hand is a somewhat unusual experience for me.  Ninety five percent of my previous visits here have been for football, where fans are considered far too irresponsible to handle a beer AND watch a game at the same time.  The fact that the stadium hadn’t seen a crowd of this size, ever didn’t cause an issue.  Have you actually seen England play recently? You need some sustenance to numb some of the dullness.  But swap your Engerland chant for a  verse of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and you gain a level of social acceptability and responsibility.  Four beers sir? Do you need a hand carrying them to your seats?

21574136478_0ac713e43f_kThis was game three for me in the Rugby World Cup.  Ireland taking on “plucky” Romania as they had been rechristened by ITV Sport after their opening game defeat to France in the White Elephant in Stratford.  I’d seen that game as well as France’s first game at Twickenham against Italy.  The atmosphere here at Wembley was different, far more partisan.  Twickenham and the Olympic Stadium had been mainly full of fans of the game, some of whom felt the need to show their neutrality by having face paint of each country on their cheeks to go along with their half ‘n’ half scarves. Here though the stadium was awash of green.  There would little in the way of cheer for a similar quarter performance as Romania gave on Wednesday against France.

21050901204_2e91adcfc3_kThe tournament was only 9 days old but had already thrown up a few surprises and talking points on and off the field.  Japan’s defeat of South Africa was a major shock – although if the Springboks would have lost to say Argentina, who in turn would have lost to Japan it may have raised a Roger Moore eyebrow. Shocks in international rugby are few and far between.  The stronger teams are just that – stronger. Power and pace go along way in rugby.  Japan’s players played the game on their lives, matching South Africa in every push, scrum, maul and ruck.  The longer the game went on, the more belief the Japanese had and the more doubt crept into the Springboks.  They could play that game 50 more times and I doubt the Japanese would find the same resolve and spirit.

The result that the organisers probably didn’t want came last night when Wales beat England by 3 points, meaning the hosts have to beat Australia next Saturday to have any chance of progressing to the knock out phases.  Defeat in that game and the final match against Uruguay could be for the wooden spoon in group A.  With tickets still on sale for that match at The City of Manchester Stadium at a bargain £250, it will be interesting to see how many fans put their seats up for resale rather than go through the misery of trying to get to the game by a hopelessly I’ll-prepared train network.

The pain and problems they have caused at virtually every game so far it’s something that the organisers want as a legacy but so far fans who have tried to travel by train have been met with delays, cancellations and ill-preparation.  On the opening weekend of the tournament as fans tried to travel to Cardiff for the Wales and Ireland games will have been dismayed to read First Great Western admit they had underestimated demand for services.  They’ve only had four years to plan for this.  Over at Twickenham last Saturday tens of thousand of fans on their way back to London after the game were forced to ‘tap in’ with their Oyster cards via 2 machines.  Last night’s game at Twickenham finished after the last train had departed Paddington for Wales – either poor planning from the organisers or FWG again for not thinking of putting on extra services.

21560445961_617be24bf4_kIt’s never a good thing for a host nation to be eliminated early from a major tournament, but with such high expectations on England it could be a major blow for ITV as well as the commercial partners.  The curious rugby fans sitting on their sofa may now channel surf instead of tuning in for England’s games.  That’s not taking anything away from Wales – they’ve shown in recent years they are a major force in World rugby and few English fans will admit they didn’t want them to win four years ago in the Rugby World Cup semi-final in New Zealand against France.

Talking on ITV, they have got the coverage so far spot on – a huge improvement on their football coverage.  Co-commentators who deliver insight rather than simply saying what we see. Studio guests who can be considered to be legends of the game, with presenters who realise their role is to not try to be the star of the show.  Andy Townsend or Jonny Wilkinson? Glenn Hoddle or Sir Clive Woodward? Lee Dixon or Lawrence Dallaglio? Need I go on?

On the field we’ve seen the advantages and disadvantages of the use of video evidence.  In the England v Fiji and France v Italy games tries were disallowed after the referee had awarded them and the conversation was about to take place thanks to use of the Television Match Official (TMO) who found a new angle to review the incident.  They break up the flow of the game, although English referee Wayne Barnes showed how to use it to great effect by asking for reviews of events he didn’t see whilst play continued in the New Zealand v Argentina game, then punishing the guilty parties.  There can be no argument that the way technology is used in rugby is far better than football. Referees with microphones so the crowd can hear conversations, video replays and even having equally-qualified as the referee touch judges who advise on decisions rather than stand powerless on the touchline.

21573993340_17915cb76b_kUnlike football, rugby is a game that all of the Fuller family enjoy.  Littlest Fuller (in age not height anymore!) can’t stand football but things nothing of watching grown men falling on top of each other.  So we parked at Stanmore and headed down to Wembley early doors to savour the atmosphere.  Despite arriving two hours before kick off, the fan zone was full.  Only open to ticket holders you’d think that they may have thought people might want to go in there.  Surely the organisers spoke to organisers of other events?  At the Olympics, the fan zones were open to everyone, ditto any major football tournament.  In both cases they certainly didn’t kick people out thirty minutes before kick off.  So much for an all-inclusive tournament.  Once again, little thought had gone into the demand for these aspects.

Once inside the stadium everything worked.  Wembley handles crowds very well and we were in our seats twenty minutes before the teams emerged.  We’d been promised a brilliant atmosphere – it was certainly loud but there was only a few chorus’s of Fields of Athenry as pockets of the Irish faithful were spread across the whole stadium rather than one concentrated area of dedicated support that you would see in the respective football tournament(s).  The biggest cheers were saved for the Mexican Wave, which at least didn’t appear until the hour mark.

Ireland showed no mercy from the first second.  The first passage of play lasted 3 minutes and seemed destined to end in a try but for a handling error.  Two TMO decisions proved the majority of the crowd wrong with Simon Zebo’s skip down the touchline showing in super-slow motion that his twinkle-toes had just touched the white line on his way to scoring a great solo effort, whilst Tommy Bowe’s collision with the touch flag proving to be after he’d touched the ball down rather than before for the first of his two tries.  Further tries from Earls (2), Kearney and Henry saw the Irish quickly rack up their bonus point on their way to 44 points, although Ovidiu Toniti’s late consolation try for Romania bringing a decent response from the majority of the crowd still in the stadium.

Despite the issues at other venues, the benefit of experience in handling big crowds was in evident as the tens of thousands of fans headed to Wembley Park tube station, being back in the car at Stanmore less than 30 minutes of the final whistle.

The tournament so far has thrown up a few surprises that may lead to one or two of the expected sides not reaching the knockout stages.  But that’s exactly what we want from a major tournament, even if it is the hosts who are the casualties.


RWC – France v Romania

Like most people my last visit to the Olympic Stadium had been to watch athletics at the 2012 Olympics. So when it was announced that a number of matches in this year’s Rugby World Cup would be played in “The Stadium, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park”, to give it its full moniker, that had to be a venue worth going to. Factor in that I am a West Ham United supporter, and that in less than 12 twelve months they will be strutting around that same arena, well you had to see what it promises!

At a test event at the end of August featuring the Barbarians and Samoa the game descended into farce when the sprinklers came on and soaked the players during a break in play-more soggy Saturday than Super Saturday. And my infrequent visits to Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium I was left with the impression of a magnificent ground but a misery to get to and an even bigger misery to get away from unless you are prepared to miss the last 20 minutes…something Arsenal supporters look willing to do.

The game kicked off at 8.00 so the tubes and Stratford Station were a mix of rugby fans, commuters and shoppers. The tournament organisers had copied the Olympic idea of “helpers” to direct fans but these were keeping a pretty low profile around the station and Westfields shopping centre in favour of massing around the stadium precincts, when it was pretty bloody obvious where you were going. So I adopted the time-honoured principle of following other fans. This route took me past the West Ham office selling the move, but was devoid of customers. Perhaps potential punters were checking out the stadium for real.

21050901204_2e91adcfc3_kAvoid the inevitable late rush and entry is easy, the concourses are spacious, and finding your seat straightforward enough. I had paid £35 for a Category C seat, in the corner but high enough to follow all the action. The stadium also has two large screens at either end, and I hope these are retained when West Ham move in.

Rather like after the Olympics, there has been much talk of the legacy from this tournament, and it had been marketed to the non-rugby following fan as somewhere to bring the family. In front of me was a family with two young boys who clearly found the games on their i-pad a bigger attraction to what was happening on the pitch. If I’m honest I couldn’t blame them. The match took a long time to get going. I timed the first Mexican wave at 12 mins 30 sec.

The organisers are already boasting of how virtually every game has sold out. Certainly, the touts were out in force this evening. But you do wonder if much as the British like to attend such high profile sporting events (and this World Cup has been billed as the world’s 3rd largest sports event after the Olympics and its football equivalent) that is as far as their commitment will go.

My wife came with me. Paradoxically she hates crowds, and would only come on condition we left early. So as we walked back to Stratford Station 20 minutes before full-time, along a completely different route to that which we’d been directed before.

I hope West Ham attract 54,000 people on a regular basis. But if that means an hour afterwards being funnelled into Stratford station a lot of the gloss will disappear.

The referee was Jaco Peyper, who took charge of England’s opening game against Fiji, when one of the main talking points afterwards was the number of times he went to the TMO, and how long it took for a decision.

21662164952_671f44788d_kIt was only 3-3 after 30 minutes, and by then, the TMO had ruled out a Romania try. Thankfully, the TMO could take the rest of the night off. Then it all unravelled for the Romanians.Paulica Ion was sent to the sin bin, and in his absence the French scored two tries. Both were converted by Parra from the touchline, and suddenly the French were 17-3 up and free from the burden of possible humiliation.

Romania kept France out for 25 minutes of the second half, before they let in three more tries. But by then I was already on the way home. Those who stayed were clearly treated to an enjoyably harum-scarum final quarter.

The papers had their own verdicts on The Olympic Stadium: According to The Times it was:

-Noisy at times, cathedral-like at others

-Fair to say this was not a West Ham United Crowd (?)

The Guardian had even sent a reporter to report on the stadium. According to Owen Gibson “At last it was possible to get a tingling sense of how it might crackle on a big Premier League night or, in Karren Brady’s dreams, for big European matches.”

“Those expensive retractable seats-which Brady had pushed so hard for-had been rolled forward on three sides, creating odd platforms behind the lower tier. It remains a vast bowl, in many ways the polar opposite of Upton Park.”

“When the anthems rang out before kick-off, or when the French supporters tried to urge their players over the try-line, the noise had a tendency to drift into the night air. I was left with the impression that West Ham fans will have to go some to create an atmosphere opposing teams will find intimidating”.

But at least we Hammers fans can hope our team will deliver a better spectacle than this match.

Mike Miles

Oh to live in Twickenham, now that the World Cup is coming

Local estate agents no doubt market the south-west London suburb of Twickenham as a desirable (and expensive!) place to live. It’s a fair bet that they do not dwell on the downside from the presence of the local national rugby stadium.

It could be every resident’s nightmare: inebriated rugby fans vomiting or urinating on the streets or into your front garden after the match. Yet this is what lies in store for Twickenham residents when the Rugby World Cup gets underway in a month’s time, with 10 of the 48 matches taking place in TW1.

Richmond council had a stab at sorting out the problem when England beat France in a warmup match on August 15. Pubs were effectively encouraged to close early, at 10pm, but the decision pleased neither publicans nor long-suffering residents who already have to put up with road diversions and rubbish-strewn streets on match days.

Now imagine you wanted to create the nation’s biggest traffic jam – apart from the M25 in rush hour. First of all you would pick a Friday evening in London during term-time and then shut one of the main arterial routes out of the capital. Say by shutting the main A316 dual carriageway linking central London with the M3 and M25 from 5pm to midnight. Then you would schedule a globally significant sporting fixture to be played in that same postcode. Then you would sit back and await the inevitable transport carnage.

So when it was announced that England would kick-off the tournament at 8pm on a Friday night at Twickenham it was not only the already put-upon local residents who took a deep breath.

If there is gridlock from south-west London to the M25 and beyond, any feel good factor surrounding rugby union’s showpiece event will soon evaporate. It could be a few long nights for anyone idly driving up to town for a quiet meal.

And if transport and ill-mannered fans weren’t posing enough problems, the home of English rugby is apparently encased in a “stinking cloud” from a nearly sewage works-prompting locals to rename Twickenham Stadium as “Stinkehham.”The sewage plant is just 0.3 miles from the stadium, and there were reports during the England-France game of a “bit of a whiff”

So the moral for anyone with a ticket for a game at Twickenham must be leave very early for the stadium and hold your nose-and hope the rugby makes it all worth it……

Mike Miles


Will Europe suffer World Cup hangover?

Among all the coverage of the forthcoming World Cup it would have been easy to miss the announcement last week of the fixtures for next season’s Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.

Because of the World Cup the competition doesn’t start until mid-November, but there are some exciting matches in prospect. There is the inevitable “Group of Death”, Pool 5, involving a previous Heineken Cup winning quartet of Leinster, Wasps, Toulon and Bath.

But there must be a question mark over how big the World Cup hangover will be, and which of the European Champions Cup contenders will be hit hardest. The answer to this will play a huge part in determining which of Toulon’s rivals will stand the best chance of prising their hands off the trophy.

Saracens are easily the Premiership’s leading lights after reaching a final and two semi-finals in the last three years. They start their hoped-for route to Lyon with a tie against fading French giants Toulouse at Allianz Park.

Their rugby director Mark McCall reflected on the competition. “ The different slant to this season is that the World Cup final will be played two weeks before the first game, and we don’t know who will be in the final – but if England were to get into the final we don’t know how our players will be coming back into the club with Toulouse just two weeks away.”

The reality is that if England, France, Ireland, Wales or Scotland reach the World Cup last four, or even the quarter finals, the sizeable international contingents of clubs like Saracens, Bath, Toulouse and Leinster could be severely compromised. Injuries, fatigue, as well as factors like loss of form all come into the post-World Cup equation.

It suggests that clubs with strong squads which are not heavily hit by international calls could thrive in the coming campaign, because, ironically, the revised format introduced a year ago, means any side that does not hit the ground running puts its quarter-final prospects in danger.

Mike Miles

Why has Leicester fallen out of love with the World Cup?

It is arguably the biggest rugby city in England, boasting the country’s biggest team, biggest club stadium and biggest trophy cabinet.

If there is one place where the Rugby World Cup should be biggest this autumn, it is Leicester. And yet, two months before the start of the second largest sporting event Britain has staged in recent years, one of rugby’s traditional heartlands is proving to be the tournament’s greatest headache.

Leicester remains the only place at which none of its allotted games have sold out. All three matches still have tickets available. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the city is threatening single-handedly to prevent World Cup organisers reaching their target of selling out the entire tournament.

Perhaps the answer lies in where the games are being held. Despite hosting games at both the 1991 and 1999 World Cups, and being among the venues submitted in England’s 2015 bid in 2009, the home of Leicester Tigers was suddenly branded unsuitable by the tournament’s evaluation committee. Instead, the King Power, or as the organisers insist on calling it, the Leicester City Stadium, was chosen. And to rub salt in the Tigers’ wound, it lies only a hefty kick away from Welford Road.

The outcry was immediate. “The mildest description is outrage,” said Tigers chief executive Simon Cohen.”We thought it was absolutely disgraceful that Welford Road, which is a hotbed of English rugby, wasn’t going to feature in an English World Cup”.

Attempts to overturn the decision –which even included local MP Jon Ashworth raising the matter in Parliament, and petitioning from the region’s chief constable, bishop and both its vice-chancellors – proved futile.

World Rugby, the governing body, stood by a recent tightening of its regulations, which meant Leicester’s pitch, was deemed two metres too narrow, with the ground also found not to meet minimum requirements on changing rooms, anti-doping, and broadcast and media facilities.

Tigers supporters might have expected to be appeased with some plum World Cup ties at affordable prices, but those hopes were crushed when they were handed three of the less attractive fixtures: Argentina v Tonga, Canada v Romania and Argentina v Namibia. With tickets costing anything up to £150, it was seen as another slap in the face for the city.

All this has even prompted what might be considered an attempt to hijack the tournament by the club, who have decided to erect an unofficial fan zone at Welford Road to show World Cup matches  – including the two Argentinean matches at the King Power Stadium. There were rumours that World Rugby could try to block the Tigers erecting their own fanzone, although that would risk alienating further a rugby community they desperately want to win round.

Mike Miles

Another pool of death beckons

As sporting clichés go, “pool of death” has to be right up there among the worst, and it would have been a minor miracle if we hadn’t heard it again when the Champions and Challenge Cup draws took place. It seems to be an immutable law that there will be a pool of death in every competition, and, with the Champions Cup now down to just 20 teams, there might just be more than one of them.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERABut it is not only “Pool of Death” rivals Bath, Leinster, Toulon and Wasps who have reason to feel let down following the European Rugby Champions Cup draw.

The confirmation of next season’s battle lines overshadowed the announcement that the Grand Stade de Lyon will host the final, with that honour passing to Murrayfield in 2017.

It will be the fourth time that France have staged club rugby’s showpiece event and the third time that it has been played in Scotland while Italy are yet to play host to the final.

It is understood that the FIR (Italian Rugby Federation) did not bid to stage the latest final –with officials perhaps too busy fighting fires on the home front, what with a threatened strike by their leading players or appeasing their PRO12 partners when it comes to their participation fees.

But their continued absence from the list of hosts remains a problem for European rugby chiefs that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Italian sides may have struggled to make a significant impression on the competition but that does not excuse their marginalization when it comes to the final.

The Six Nations has shown that they are more than capable of hosting major rugby events and Italy’s sell-out clash against the All Blacks in 2009 illustrated that they are able to successfully market one-off games. Those facts should ease any commercial concerns and fears that the game may not sell out or catch the imagination of the wider sporting public.

Italian supporters and rugby fans in general would relish the opportunity to experience a final at somewhere like the Stadio Olimpico or the San Siro and it would boost the competition’s profile significantly.

If the FIR need a little help to get to that point it is time for their European partners to front up.

Mike Miles

Coming to America

It appears the Aviva Premiership is set to break new ground with the staging of a game overseas next season. It is rumoured London Irish are poised to take their traditional St. Patrick’s Day game to New York  as part of a three-year deal between Premiership Rugby and USA Rugby designed to boost the profile of the sport on both sides of the Atlantic.

Super Rugby has of course already ventured down this route, although in different circumstances, with the Crusaders tackling the Sharks at Twickenham back in 2011 in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake. A crowd of 35,000 were lured to HQ that day and Irish will no doubt hope to tap into the Irish-American community for the New York fixture, but talk of an 80,000 sell-out at a venue like MetLife Stadium appears a bit fanciful.

It is all very exciting but what about the Exiles’ fans? Crowds were once again disappointing at Irish’s 24,000-seater Madejski Stadium home last season, with the attendance exceeding 8,000 just four times in the league – including the highly popular St Patrick’s Day game.

The All Blacks piqued interest within the sporting US public, as illustrated by the huge crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field for last November’s game against the Eagles, but London Irish and whoever their scheduled opposition will not be such as easy sell.

Would the money and effort not be better spent in attracting new fans on Premiership Rugby’s doorstep, and who might continue to support the team long after the proposed game in New York? The Premiership final may continue to attract the masses to Twickenham but that is not reflected week in, week out at many Premiership grounds where the sport does not appear to matter enough to enough people.

Those fans that regularly rattle around the Madejski and are treated to an under-performing side are “rewarded” with the chance to fork out for what will not be a cheap jaunt across the Pond.

But with Saracens and Leicester also heading Stateside in the off-season, and probably more regular season games poised to be switched, it is something fans should get used to –or at least start saving for.

Mike Miles

Abolish the Championship play-offs

You would not have dared write the script.  Chris Pennell, Worcester’s favourite son and a man who stood by them throughout relegation, scores a last minute try , and Ryan Lamb nervelessly slots the conversion to draw the game on the night, and give Worcester a one point win on aggregate over the two legs of the Championship final.

In terms of pure drama, it was right up there with anything we have seen in the sport. But the utter devastation and disbelief on the faces of the Bristol players painted an entirely different picture.

That only one of Worcester or Bristol could be promoted is immeasurably cruel and even more so when you consider that it is heartbreak for Bristol in the final second for a second season in a row. But really, they should never have been in this situation again.

Play-offs in the Premiership can be explained away – the final has become a true spectacle and draws in the crowds, and the money. It also offsets the times in the calendar when some sides have players away on international duty, meaning you still have a shot at the title even if all your top players are missing for swathes of the season and you suffer a blip in form.

Neither of those arguments apply to the Championship. The final is played over two legs, at the homes of the two finalists, serving only to add one extra gate’s takings to the coffers. A drop in the ocean compared to a season in the Premiership, of course. And 99% of the players in the league do not receive call-ups for international periods.

This season, almost from week one, it has been obvious that Bristol and Worcester would occupy the top two spots. Knowing the play-off system, it becomes almost pointless who finishes first and who second-which surely just makes a mockery of the league system in itself.

Bristol beat Worcester home and away in the regular season-to turn around and then say they have to do it again in a play-off competition  is both bonkers and unnecessary-have they not already proved themselves to be better?

Bristol should have been promoted last year, after walking the league season. That would, in all likelihood, have led Worcester doing the same this season, and both would be competing in the Premiership next year. Instead, Bristol will have to go through the motions for another nine months to get to another play-off final, and the only couple of really meaningful games in their season.

The Premiership ring-fencing is a debate for another time, but the scrapping of the Championship play-off system is one that should be had now.

Mike Miles

London Welsh must now focus on organic growth

The points against column for the season for London Welsh have soared past the 1,000 mark – and the previous record, held by West Hartlepool. The Exiles finished the season with 1,021 points conceded over 22 matches, surpassing the 1,007 shipped by the north-east side in the 1998/99 season. Small consolation, but in those days there were 14 teams in the Premiership, so that the tally was racked over four more matches.

It closes the coffin on Welsh’s second stint in the Premiership. And so bad has it been that the Premiership suits could moot an end to promotion and relegation while pointing at the hapless Welsh as a reason why.

Off the field, where the real problems have always lain, London Welsh were never ready for Premiership rugby, this time or last. The Kassam Stadium, in theory a perfectly pleasant ground, has echoed to the sound of a few thousand fans. So if there’s one thing we have learned from the London Welsh experience, it is that those much maligned minimum standards criteria were not quite such a ridiculous concept after all.

Clubs such as Exeter and Worcester have spent years putting together credible packages for the Premiership; Welsh’s application to the inspectorate three years ago was last minute and on the hoof.

The good news, though, is that there may yet be life at the Kassam. Wasps have now left the area and if London Welsh can attract any floating fans in the Thames Valley they could grow into an attractive proposition. It will take a few years. And those years should be spent in the Championship.

Mike Miles

Don’t hit a man when he is down

Another season ends; another promotion-relegation debate drags on

England’s leading clubs have pounced on London Welsh’s failure to compete in the Premiership and used it as a key weapon in their regular quest to ring-fence English rugby’s top flight. Twenty-two straight league defeats does not make pretty reading for the Exiles or the league as a whole but they have been handicapped since before even the start of the season.

Denied the same amount of central funding as their Premiership rivals, the timing of the Championship season means that their place among the elite is not confirmed until what seems like mid-summer and so their recruitment plans are hampered badly to say the least.

The fear of relegation can inspire thrilling and crowd-pleasing rugby at the wrong end of the table to rival that being played in the battle for silverware with teams fighting lives and players for their livelihoods. London Welsh may have failed spectacularly this season, but the likes of Exeter have thrived. Long-term financial planning may be hindered by uncertainty but drama puts bums on seats.

By all means engineer an expansion to the Premiership that will see sides clearly capable of competing – Bristol and Worcester – given an invite to the party but do not bolt the door.

Promotion and relegation must remain with a play-off between the Championship winners and the Premiership basement side perhaps the most likely compromise.

Mike Miles