By Jonathan Rest at Twickenham
England Rugby 2015, the organising committee for the Rugby World Cup of that year, said today it was confident it had achieved its target of taking the tournament around the country, despite unveiling match venues and scheduling that indicates a strong dependence on the capital London.
London will stage more than one-third of the 48 World Cup matches: 10 at Twickenham, the home of English rugby union, including the opening match on September 18 and final on October 31; five at the Olympic Stadium, including the third-fourth place play-off; and two at Wembley Stadium, the home of English soccer.
In total, 13 stadia in 11 cities will stage tournament matches, and as expected there is a reliance on larger soccer venues rather than rugby-specific stadia in a bid by the organisers to sell the necessary amount of tickets to meet their £80-million ($124.6-million) revenue guarantee to the International Rugby Board, the sport's governing body.
Gloucester's Kingsholm Stadium and Sandy Park in Exeter are the only club rugby grounds on the list, with national stadia Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales hosting the most matches.
Of the original long list of 17 stadia, Coventry, Bristol, Derby, Southampton and Sunderland all missed out. Soccer grounds staging matches comprise Villa Park in Birmingham, the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, St James' Park in Newcastle, Leicester's King Power Stadium, Stadium MK in Milton Keynes, Elland Road in Leeds, the Brighton Community Stadium and Wembley, all of which will host pool games.
From the quarter-finals onwards, and with the exception of the third-fourth place play-off, only Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium will be used, in order to boost attendances and ticket sales.
Andrew Cosslett, chairman of England Rugby 2015, described the tournament schedule work as "spinning the Rubik's Cube," and Debbie Jevans, chief executive of the organising committee, said the right balance had been struck.
Speaking at a press conference at Twickenham today, Jevans explained: "If you look throughout the whole schedule, the majority of matches are not in football stadiums; 25 are in rugby, seven in multi-sport venues and 16 in football.
"We have taken the game to the whole country. While we do have three big stadia in London, we have taken the tournament around the country and we are proud of that fact."
Organisers were forced into a late switch following the withdrawal of Old Trafford, the 76,000-seat home of English soccer's Manchester United, from the list of potential venues, with neighbouring Manchester City's Etihad Stadium stepping in, albeit for just one game on October 10. That game will be England's only match played outside London.
Jevans continued: "Our ambition was absolutely to take the tournament to the north west and to Manchester. And the important thing was that we really wanted to take England to the north west. We were delighted that Manchester City came to the table. It is not a hole [having only one game in the north west], it is an opportunity for thousands of people to come and watch England play."
Jevans also defended the fact that Cardiff's Millennium Stadium will stage a total of eight matches, more than any venue in England apart from Twickenham, with its 74,000 seats no doubt a selling point.
She said: "As one of the iconic rugby stadia in the world, we felt a need to take a number of matches there [to Cardiff]. We think it's going to be an excellent partner... Wales is absolutely not a co-host. They are a partner."
Wales will play two of their pool matches at 'home', but crunch pool matches against England and Australia have been scheduled for Twickenham.
Despite being the largest venue on the list, with a capacity of more than 90,000, Wembley is only staging two pool games because of contractual obligations to host matches of American football's NFL.
The withdrawal of Old Trafford made it essential to agree a deal with the London Legacy Development Corporation, the body responsible for the future use of Olympic venues, to use the Olympic Stadium, which will have a capacity of at least 56,000 by 2015. It will host matches involving France, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland.
England Rugby 2015 was forced to delay the announcement of its match venues until today in order to allow full due diligence to be undertaken on the Olympic Stadium, which is to be reconfigured later this year to become the eventual home of English soccer's West Ham United.
Despite being shortlisted, there was no guarantee the Olympic Stadium would be available for the tournament, amid doubts over whether construction work to prepare it for West Ham's tenancy could be interrupted for matches to take place there.
The Rugby World Cup board met in March and ruled that "appropriate time should be given to allow every possible opportunity to include the Olympic Stadium, one of the world's most recognisable venues."
The organisers' original plan was to sell 2.9 million tickets, but with the loss of Old Trafford and limitations on the use of Wembley, it is more likely that around 2.6 million tickets will be on offer.
Despite the drop, England Rugby 2015 said it is confident financial targets will be met. Indeed Jevans said that the minimum £7 ticket promise, made by her predecessor Paul Vaughan, was likely to be kept.
She added: "We're looking currently now at the ticketing strategy, and we will announce the prices later this year. Capacity has reduced but not to a great extent. Looking at the venues we have, we are confident we are going to be able to honour the minimum prices."
Brett Gosper, chief executive of the IRB, was also forced to defend the £80-million revenue guarantee figure. Asked whether, in light of the number of soccer rather than rugby venues having to be used for a Rugby World Cup, the figure was too steep, he replied: "We don't think so, our partners don't think so and the people queuing to host the tournament didn't think so."