London Evening Standard

Just before the 1966 World Cup, Sir Alf Ramsey boldly claimed England would be crowned champions.

Seven months before England kick off the Rugby World Cup here, Ian Ritchie is confident enough to copy Sir Alf.

The chief executive of the RFU tells me: “We’ve got the ability to win, the strength and the depth, the wish and the commitment. I do believe that we can win the Webb Ellis Cup.”

That may be a hostage to fortune given that England lost to the two best teams in the world during the autumn, New Zealand and South Africa. Worse still, the 24-21 defeat by the All Blacks was the fifth on the bounce against the world champions.

“It was not something any of us enjoyed,” says Ritchie as we meet in his Twickenham office. “We had our opportunities against New Zealand and we didn’t take them. So I absolutely believe we can win. I’m very clear that, with our very strong coaching team, we will be in a better place in 2015 than we were in 2014.”

An early test of whether that is true comes on Friday when the RBS Six Nations begins with England taking on Wales. It will be the first time Stuart Lancaster’s men have played at the Millennium Stadium since being thumped 30-3 by the hosts two years ago.

Ritchie confesses watching this week’s match will make him feel like a teenager again.

The 60-year-old former All England Club chief executive says: “I used to be able to sit at Wimbledon relatively relaxed. When people asked, ‘Who do you want to win?’ I could say, ‘It’s about the event. I’m not partial whether it’s Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray.’ Here, I am decidedly partial.

“Now, watching England is like when I was a teenager at Elland Road supporting Leeds: apprehensive, nervous, tense. If we’re X points up and there’s only 10 minutes to go, then I can enjoy it. But these games are all much closer nowadays, so you don’t get that luxury very often.

“It’ll be jumping in Cardiff on Friday. We all, including a chunk of the team, remember what happened two years ago. We want to do everything we possibly can to win. Winning counts and it makes a difference whether we win or not, absolutely.”

Wales, as well as Australia, are both in England’s World Cup pool and Ritchie will not read too much into what happens at Cardiff.

“At the World Cup we’ll be playing them at Twickenham,” he says. “It’s a bit like when we beat Australia in the autumn here. If you’re Australia, they would say, “Well, yeah, okay, we lost, does that mean we’ll lose the next time we play? Not necessarily.”

Ritchie was brought on board by the RFU shortly after England’s disastrous 2011 World Cup campaign. His first major task was to oversee the appointment of a new head coach.

After impressing in a temporary role during the 2012 Six Nations, Lancaster was handed the job permanently and the head coach and his staff were given more backing by Ritchie last year when they were handed new deals until 2020. But was it wise for the RFU to sanction contract extensions, regardless of how England perform at the World Cup?

“As a coaching team, they’re fantastically committed and very talented,” says Ritchie. “We watch them all the time, work very closely with them and it’s right to give them that certainty. Their contracts expired in the early part of 2016. What you don’t want to do is to have somebody who is looking over his shoulder about his next job. Sometimes in sport we’re all a bit to prone to short-term fixes.”

This long-term attitude has shaped the RFU’s approach to the World Cup. “For English rugby 2015 is the most important, most momentous year we have had. It could be the most game‑changing year. We’ve tried to say to the players this will be the year of their lives. According to one poll, the World Cup will be the most anticipated national event of the year. There’s about half a million coming from overseas: French, quite a lot from the States. Commercially we’ve already sold enough tickets to say the event is a success.

“But it is not just what will happen on the pitch or what happens with the event but what it means for rugby in this country. How do you make sure there is a legacy? In 2018 will we look back and say we took advantage of all the things the World Cup brought and got more people involved in the game?”

To achieve that objective, the RFU have reached out to children that have never played rugby — 400 more state schools will play the game this year.

“We’re all hoping that Stuart and the team are going to win but we’ve still got to plan on the assumption that it’s all about rugby going forward whether Stuart wins, loses or draws,” says Ritchie. “Clearly, if England have a very successful time of it, then that will give the game an extra boost. But there is no point getting shocked when, on the Monday after the World Cup, thousands of children arrive and we say we haven’t got enough balls.”

This is Ritchie’s answer to critics who say the RFU have done a brilliant job of making money and a dreadful job winning on the pitch. “I always love it when I read the RFU are too commercial. I am an absolute fan of making money because, let’s be clear, we are an investment vehicle into the game. So, when somebody invests money with us that money goes back into the game.

“Therefore, being unashamedly commercial is extremely important. If you haven’t got a strong commercial activation, you are not going to be able to invest in all the things that you need to do from the grassroots level right the way through to the England team.”

Just to emphasise that commercialism has not come at the expense of the sport, Ritchie points to a small but significant change which has increased the team’s interaction with fans. “The players are dropped off 200 yards outside the gate, instead of the coach dropping them inside the gates. The players have to walk. I spoke to the players about that and they like it. The crowd like it. It engages them with the fans on the way in here and it motivates the team.”

And, if that motivation means that, come October 31, England lifts the Webb Ellis Cup, then Ritchie will achieve what he calls his World Cup hat-trick. “A fantastic sporting event leaving great memories, an England win, and a sustained legacy which will see us having engaged more people in rugby events.”

But, before that, there is the not-so-small matter of negotiating the Welsh on Friday night.


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