BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Away from World Cup bright lights can rugby blossom?

Canada players pose for a picture with fans after being presented with international caps during their World Cup team welcoming ceremony at the Brangwyn Hall,Swansea. Picture: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

You couldn’t imagine a more comforting starting line for Joe Schmidt’s side tomorrow than the Millennium Stadium, writes Brendan O’Brien.

For the thousands of Irish fans who flood into the Welsh capital it promises to be a belter of a weekend. And as for those braving the city for the first time on a rugby excursion: Take a deep breath and prepare to be immersed.

This column’s standout memory of Cardiff was in 2008 when Munster had won their second Heineken Cup. As the train rolled off to Bristol — work called, unfortunately — the last image of the streets around the ground was one of massed entertainment as a giant rugby ball was kicked, thrown, punched and cheered up and down the avenues by the fans.

That’s Cardiff. The whole place is swallowed by the giddiness.

Yet this isn’t a tournament that will be judged a success or failure for anything that happens in Cardiff. Or even in London. Between them the two capital cities will be home to over half of the 48 games, including all eight ‘knockout’ ties, leaving venues such as Newcastle, Birmingham, Leeds, Leicester, Gloucester and Milton Keynes to host what, in the main, will be less gilded games.

It has been noted long before now that more than a few of the 11 selected cities are ones pulsating with traditions borne of a far more popular strain of football and it will be interesting to look on and see how the tournament fares in a country dominated by ‘The Beautiful Game’ and one in which the latest Premier League season has long been in full swing.

We’ve seen before how England has surrendered itself to sporting extravaganzas. In 2005, one of the most epic of Ashes series thrilled the nation. Seven years later and the Olympics engulfed the city of London and much of the country, imbuing it with an air of gay abandon that lasted through to the Paralympics a few weeks later and which temporarily relegated the football to the status of second-class citizen.

It was never likely to last and the mind goes back to the morning of the 2012 Heineken Cup final between Leinster and Ulster at Twickenham and how there was little or no physical evidence of the occasion in Central London though the RFU’s flagship stadium was to be filled to more-or-less capacity that day for one of rugby’s biggest days.

The football was on that weekend, too and those colours were far more prominent. As were the spectators armed with wicker picnic baskets — honestly, some clichés continue to write themselves! — making their way from one of the main train stations to see England play cricket. Bottom line? It doesn’t take much for an event to be swallowed up in England.

Stuart Barnes, who has visited Ireland countless times with Sky Sports for European Cup and PRO12 duties, and who will be a member of TV3’s Rugby World Cup panel, has remarked before about being taken aback by rugby stories appearing on the back pages of Irish newspapers. That happens far, far less in the UK though the event is fighting its corner.

In Newcastle, where St James’ Park will host three matches, the local council and its surrounding counterparts have launched a ‘Do Your Bit’ campaign urging people to help spruce up the place, mindful that the thousands of visitors expected to visit the region for the rugby will contribute an estimated £43m to the local economy.

A giant screen has been installed at the city’s iconic Grey’s Monument, a Festival of Rugby will run through for the duration of the event and the RFU will be on hand at the designated fanzone promoting the game and encouraging people to join their local clubs.

Such stories are bubbling under the lid in all the other host cities.

Rugby hotbeds such as Leicester and Gloucester have predictably bought into the spirit of it all with even greater gusto. Welford Road won’t host any games — the King Power will instead — but the Tigers’ home will be opening its doors to show England’s outings on a big screen and 5,000 people will be accommodated in the city’s Victoria Park fanzone.

In Brighton, where Chris Hughton’s Brighton and Ed Joyce’s Sussex cricket team are hogging the sporting headlines, the Samoans have already captured local hearts by singing the final song — a traditional number called ‘Lota Nu’u’ — at mass at St Mary Magdalen’s Church in the city’s Upper North Street last Sunday.

Who knows what mark it will all leave. There has been the usual chin-stroking this week as to what the legacy will be of this tournament, but if sport has taught us anything it is that these things are consistently ephemeral. Studies in Germany, for example, have shown no correlation in the numbers of grassroots tennis players playing the game there with the successes of the Steffi Graf/Boris Becker/Michael Stich era.

Likewise with London and the 2012 Olympics with academics in the UK claiming that the levels of participation in sport have actually decreased in the three years since. So, let’s not make any such grandiose claims for this Rugby World Cup, or that of 2023 if we succeed in the bid to play the game’s host in eight years’ time.

Tournaments come and they go. They are not transformative events and the benefits beyond what they pump into the economy are intangible at best. Let’s just celebrate it for what it is: a tournament to savour. And a temporary diversion from the Premier League.

Email: Twitter: @Rackob

Stevie G lifts the lid on Rodgers’ flawed logic

It’s early for the ‘sports book of the year’ awards buzz, but Steven Gerrard’s My Story is a runaway favourite to take the gong labelled ‘most unimaginative title’.When you see lettering like that on a front cover, you should be thinking of literature’s equivalent of flat-pack furniture: Functional, but far from fancy.

As is the norm, the juiciest morsels have been parsed by a daily newspaper which no doubt paid an exorbitant amount for the privilege and, though there is nothing to take the breath away, there is the odd nugget of partial interest.The El Hadji Diouf spat (ahem!) we’ll leave aside.His take on Mario Balotelli was arguably of greater interest anyway.

The standout sentence, for this column, was a recollection of the day Brendan Rodgers approached Gerrard in Liverpool’s Melwood training complex and basically said that, because he had missed out on a few transfer targets, he was left having to “take a gamble” on the Italian.How extraordinary is that?

This is a guy charged with the task of steering a club which holds an estimated worth of roughly £900m, one that operates within the financial Camelot that is the Premier League, and yet here he is taking a wild punt on a guy whose career has been a series of car crashes — between the literal and the metaphorical — interspersed with the odd dashing manoeuvre.Some way to run a business.<


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