England fans woke up to a familiar hangover of bitter disappointment yesterday, while despair hung heavily in the air at the team’s base in Surrey as players and support staff attempted to come to terms with becoming the first Rugby World Cup hosts to ever go out in the pool stages.
They weren’t the only ones; everyone involved, from tournament organisers to grassroots coaches, from marketeers to publicans, were left counting the cost of England’s early exit from their own party following a 33-13 defeat against Australia at Twickenham. Meanwhile, fans who had shelled out hundreds of pounds on quarter-final tickets in the hope that England would emerge from a “pool of death” that included Wales and Australia started to offload them on secondary ticketing sites.
ITV executives, hoping for a successful Rugby World Cup for England ahead of a new rights deal under which they will share rights to the 6 Nations with the BBC, will now see ratings hit for next Saturday’s Uruguay match and the knockout stages that will follow.
A peak audience of more than 11 million viewers tuned in to watch England’s defeat, a figure now unlikely to be beaten during the rest of the Rugby World Cup. The convincing defeat confirmed the end of an England campaign that started amid unprecedented hype, with a send-off at the O2 featuring Take That, before soon unravelling into recriminations over just three matches. The inquiry into the state of the game in England that follows such a traumatic exit began almost immediately.
Outside England’s heavily branded bubble, however, the tournament has so far been considered a hit.
Almost all of the 2.4m tickets on offer, at prices of up to £715, have been sold and the atmosphere generated in stadiums and at fan parks across the country has been praised by World Rugby executives. But there will now be concern that excitement levels will tail off.
It has been estimated that England’s exit could mean a £500m hit for businesses including pubs, hotels and supermarkets.
Secondary ticketing websites, on which punters have been reselling despite warnings from organisers that doing so breaks their terms and conditions, said prices for matches in the knockout stages had predictably plunged as England fans sought to offload their tickets.
The RFU is the richest rugby union in the world, with the redeveloped Twickenham’s catering and ticket sales raising huge sums that are then reinvested in the game. The RFU chief executive, Ian Ritchie, and others had endlessly talked up the extent to which a successful tournament could bring the sport to new audiences, inspire children to take it up and redefine the way it is viewed.
Amid the tatters of yet another review, all that is now in doubt. As the tournament continued with a full schedule of matches on Sunday, organisers insisted the show would go on – not least for the 400,000 visiting fans.
“Although a successful host nation is always good for a major sporting event, we believe that the nation will continue to embrace the tournament, and all the competing nations,” said an England Rugby 2015 spokeswoman.
“The tournament is already very close to a sellout, and with the exciting rubgy on offer, the large numbers of international fans here in England, and the fact that the British public loves big sporting events, we believe the tournament will continue to inspire the nation and the watching world over the next four weeks.”
For brands such as O2 which have thrown their marketing muscle behind England, their early exit is nothing short of a disaster. But ITV and organisers will now hope that Wales, Ireland and Scotland make the knockout stages and maintain home interest into the final weeks of the tournament. All stand a good chance of making it, with Warren Gatland’s Welsh side facing Australia next weekend for the chance to top pool A. Ireland are on course to meet Argentina in the quarter-finals and Scotland need to beat Samoa to advance.
Early kick-off for the blame game
While speculation over the future of England’s head coach, Stuart Lancaster, was growing yesterday at Pennyhill Park – the Surrey training base where no potential gain has been considered too marginal – the RFU chief executive, Ian Ritchie, announced a wide-ranging review of what went wrong.
A drawn and defeated Lancaster, employed four years ago to rebuild English rugby after a disastrous World Cup in New Zealand that ended in -rancour and ill-discipline on and off the field, said it was too early for decisions.
Ritchie ruled out a knee-jerk reaction, but it appears increasingly clear the coaching set-up will not survive intact. While not quite as speedy as the England football team’s World Cup exit after six days in Brazil last year, it felt all the more traumatic for being on home soil.
Lancaster, who is widely liked and respected within the game but has come in for increasing criticism over his decisions and coaching style from ex-players and coaches, said he was still focused on England’s final game, a dead-rubber match against Uruguay in Manchester on Saturday. “I am not going to have a personal discussion in public. There are lots of factors [but] the accountability and responsibility lies with me. That is the biggest thing for me,” he said, arms folded as he sat alongside Ritchie.
One possibility is Lancaster could be retained within the RFU set-up in a development role.
Meanwhile, England’s players admitted they had been outclassed by Australia. “There was a lot of expectation, hype and talk going into this tournament and we have fallen flat on our face,” admitted the flanker Tom Wood. “I can’t explain how much it hurts.” The captain, Chris Robshaw, was similarly at a loss to explain the early exit.
This article was written by Owen Gibson, Chief sports correspondent, for theguardian.com on Monday 5th October 2015 00.50 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010