Rugby World Cup 2011
A World Cup like no other
October 22, 2011
Wallabies and All Blacks fans side by side, encapsulating the spirit of the 2011 Rugby World Cup © Getty Images
Rugby World Cup glory beckons for New Zealand on Sunday night but before a ball is even kicked in the tournament finale they can arguably lay claim to a more important victory.
For the last six years critics have constantly questioned the decision to award New Zealand the rights to host the sport's showpiece event. There were accusations that sentimentality had taken precedence over forward thinking and that taking the World Cup back to where it all began in 1987, instead of rival bidder Japan, would hinder the development of the game. While acknowledging New Zealand's rich rugby heritage, they asked how a country so 'small' could cope with an event as big as the World Cup.
The 2007 tournament in France had also set new standards both aesthetically and commercially and, for many, it was impossible to see New Zealand matching let alone exceeding what was widely regarded as the best World Cup to date. But the country as a whole rose to the challenge and has delivered an unforgettable experience.
The decision to bid was a calculated gamble but one that has paid off and will continue to do so in the years ahead. A hosting fee of NZ$150m (£75m) was paid to the International Rugby Board (IRB) just for the privilege to stage the event, with the sport's governing body also keeping all commercial revenue including that generated from the lucrative broadcasting and sponsorship deals. In addition, New Zealand spent in the region of NZ$300m (£150m) readying itself with the construction of the Otago Stadium one shining example of the results of that expenditure.
Rugby New Zealand 2011 (RNZ 2011), formed by the New Zealand Government and the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) in 2006 to deliver the tournament, set about recouping that substantial outlay with tickets sales their only means of balancing the books. A daunting revenue target of NZ$268.5m was set but passed earlier this week, propelled by feast of rugby served up by the world's best in the last two months. It is almost laughable that a World Cup so successful as this could still generate substantial losses in the region of NZ$40m but the windfall generated by upwards of 80,000 visitors and the goodwill generated will offer far more significant returns.
Such figures will provide comfort for the money men but the real success story of this World Cup has a human face. A 'stadium of four million' was promised by organisers who were convinced that New Zealand would embrace the opportunity to play host to the rest of the world and their faith has been repaid by nation that has bought into the tournament like no other before it.
New Zealand has had an incredibly tough year with the Christchurch earthquakes and the Pike River mining disaster serving as body blows to a nation already tackling the global recession. In such circumstances they would be forgiven for dismissing the prospect of a World Cup as something trivial but far from it. This is New Zealand, a country with rugby at its heart, and the World Cup has provided the population with a focus and a reason to smile again.
Stadiums across the country have been full of passionate fans revelling in a party atmosphere and delighting in the fortunes of their side or cheering on their chosen 'second' team. It was feared in some quarters that a lack of big venues would impact on the match day experience and it has - in spectacular fashion. Anyone lucky enough to enjoy the feast for the senses that was Otago Stadium on the occasion of England's clash with Argentina will tell you that you do not need a crowd of 80,000 people to generate something special. And that game was just one of many to benefit from an unrivalled enthusiasm for the game and the World Cup.
But that energy was not confined to the stadiums. The various Fan Zones around the country served as outlets for fans desperate to immerse themselves in the euphoria, while World Cup fever was also evident in everyday life. From the blanket media coverage to a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop, everything revolved around the rugby. The city of Christchurch, cruelly robbed of a starring role by Mother Nature, had to be content with a role on the fringes of the World Cup but not even the tragedy that befell them could diminish the fervour in that rugby heartland. This was their World Cup as much as anyone else.
Elsewhere, tourism chiefs capitalised on the country's moment in the spotlight with the Real New Zealand Festival showcasing everything great about the country and such a seamlessly co-ordinated effort must also be applauded.
In many ways, England cannot hope to replicate this tournament in four years time even if they wanted to. The proposed scale of RWC'15 will dwarf this one with a target of 2.8m tickets sales compared to 1.35m for RWC'11 and stadiums like the 76,000 capacity Old Trafford replacing much smaller venues such as the 17,000-seater Rugby Park in Invercargill. The sport also suffers from a lower profile in England and, as a result, the organisers face a huge task to retain inclusivity that has made this tournament so special. They inherit a World Cup richer for New Zealand's handling of the honour and it is up to them to build on that success by presenting their own unique experience. They cannot hope to be better, just different and equally rewarding, and them must leave others to judge.
The successful staging of Rugby World Cup 2011 is a stunning achievement in the face of adversity and a tribute to not only the organisers but each and every community and individual who has served the sport and their country so well. Suddenly the question on everyone's lips is not why was the tournament awarded to New Zealand, but when can we come again?
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.