LONDON (Reuters) - London’s Olympic Stadium will host four pool matches and the third-place playoff in the 2015 rugby World Cup and England will briefly leave their Twickenham base to play at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, organisers said on Thursday.
The match schedule, released alongside the venue list at a Twickenham news conference, finally gives the lesser nations a fair crack of the whip after years of having to operate on minimal rest while the sport’s big guns routinely had a week between fixtures.
The final list of 13 venues also includes Wembley, for two games, and Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, which will host six pool games and two quarter-finals.
Wales, however, will grace their Cardiff home only in two pool games, against a playoff winner and the top Oceania team, and cannot play there in the knockout phase.
Their eagerly-awaited Pool A matches against England and Australia will be at Twickenham, which will also host two quarter-finals, both semis and the final on October 31.
The tournament will consist of 48 matches - 40 group games played by four pools each of five countries, four quarter-finals, two semi-finals, a third-place playoff and the final.
The other host venues, dominated by football grounds, are St James’ Park in Newcastle, Elland Road in Leeds, Leicester’s King Power Stadium, Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, Villa Park in Birmingham, Stadium MK at Milton Keynes, Brighton’s Amex Stadium and two rugby-specific grounds, Exeter’s Sandy Park and Gloucester’s Kingsholm.
England will kick off the tournament against Oceania 1, probably Fiji, at Twickenham on September 18 and will also play against a repechage qualifier at the Etihad Stadium, which was drafted in after Old Trafford pulled out but will host only one game.
Wembley, where availability was limited due to its hosting of an NFL game, will stage two matches, including defending champions New Zealand against Argentina.
The first match at the Olympic Stadium, likely to have a capacity of between 55,000-60,000 as it undergoes development to become West Ham United’s new home, is France against a European qualifier.
It will also host New Zealand v an African qualifier
Having been regularly criticised in previous tournaments for schedules that penalised the minor countries, organisers said they have produced a much fairer programme, while still maximising TV exposure.
“This is going to be the most balanced and equitable schedule World Cup in history,” said the International Rugby Board’s CEO Brett Gosper.
“All the Unions wanted to see a change in that area and all of them had to participate in achieving that balance. It will lead to a more competitive World Cup and we are also very pleased about that.”
Organisers had promised the IRB sales of 2.9 million tickets as part of their aim to reach a revenue target of 80 million pounds but, with the loss of Old Trafford, that figure is likely to be nearer to 2.3 million.
”We are still expecting over two million ticket sales, said tournament chief executive Debbie Jevans, recently drafted into the organising team after her successful role at the London Olympics.
The inclusion of eight games at the Millennium Stadium led to questions over the “English” nature of the tournament but Rugby Football Union (RFU) CEO Ian Ritchie dismissed them.
“It was not an RFU decision of course but we are very happy with the schedule. This an England World Cup which we hope will have a huge impact on the game in England,” he said.
“Not only is there a wide geographical spread of venues, enabling more people to watch rugby than ever before, but it is truly a national event that the game and the country will feel a part of.”
England coach Stuart Lancaster, who has previously held training sessions in Leeds, said he was delighted his side would be playing in Manchester.
“Taking England to the North is something we’ll relish,” he said. “It’s an area that’s full of passion and pride with huge numbers of people playing and involved in the game, and I know we’ll get great support.”
Editing by Sonia Oxley and Ed Osmond