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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By Gavin Mairs RUGBY NEWS COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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.”

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