Rugby hits the road as England look to the north
Newcastle or Manchester to host World Cup warm-up Twickenham set to lose its monopoly on Test matches
England will play a World Cup warmup match in Manchester or Newcastle next year as part of a radical plan to regularly take Tests away from Twickenham to widen support for the game.
The Rugby Football Union is also keen to play one of England’s autumn Tests outside London each year from 2020 in a move that represents a massive shift in policy and a huge boost for supporters in the North.
The fixture next year, against either Ireland or Wales, will officially be the first high-profile non-World Cup home match played by England outside London since 1997, when they faced New Zealand at Old Trafford while Twickenham was being redeveloped. They played Argentina at Old Trafford in 2009, but that was officially a home match for Los Pumas.
The RFU has argued that taking games away from Twickenham, which generates revenues of more than £10 million per match, is financially prohibitive as the governing body would lose at least half of that income. However, Steve Brown, the RFU chief executive, is determined to make matches more accessible and increase the diversity of the fanbase. He believes that taking games on the road is essential to boost the profile of the sport in areas such as the North West.
Brown, who succeeded Ian Ritchie, appears to have been influenced by the success of England’s final World Cup pool match in 2015 against Uruguay at the City of Manchester Stadium. “Clearly, there’s a high demand for games at Twickenham, but we need to get the balance right,” said Brown. “There’s a good chance we’ll start to play in different parts of the country.
“It isn’t just Manchester. There are some real heartlands in the North East and the North West. There’s competition with football and rugby league at the community level, but there’s great [rugby union] history there. Clubs like Sale and Newcastle have great connections with the community.
“We had 55,000 for Uruguay in the World Cup. That’s the scale that we’ll be looking at. Some of the cities, particularly Manchester, are very interested. Newcastle are very keen as well.
“The other thing is to make it a regular feature. We don’t want it to just be a one-off. An autumn Test could be an option. If we were to take a call to reduce our income, that’s less money to put back into the game. It’s a balancing act. We have to look at having that game as an investment to increase interest and participation.”
The Telegraph revealed in December 2011 that the RFU was considering switching one of England’s Six Nations fixtures to a venue in the North to regenerate the sport in the region ahead of hosting the 2015 World Cup.
It was a response to two reports commissioned by the RFU and Premiership Rugby on the state of the game in the North. However, the plans were shelved by Ritchie, whose priority was to bring stability to the governing body in the wake of its constitutional meltdown after the 2011 World Cup.
Mark Evans, the former Harlequins chief executive who compiled the 2011 reports, told The Sunday Telegraph that the move would be hugely significant to growing the game in the North.
“If you are going to grow your audience you have to take your best product, not your worst product,” said Evans. “You don’t give them crumbs, you give them a slice of the cake. If we are starting to see even a small slice, then I think that is great.”