It is arguably the biggest rugby city in England, boasting the country’s biggest team, biggest club stadium and biggest trophy cabinet.
If there is one place where the Rugby World Cup should be biggest this autumn, it is Leicester. And yet, two months before the start of the second largest sporting event Britain has staged in recent years, one of rugby’s traditional heartlands is proving to be the tournament’s greatest headache.
Leicester remains the only place at which none of its allotted games have sold out. All three matches still have tickets available. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the city is threatening single-handedly to prevent World Cup organisers reaching their target of selling out the entire tournament.
Perhaps the answer lies in where the games are being held. Despite hosting games at both the 1991 and 1999 World Cups, and being among the venues submitted in England’s 2015 bid in 2009, the home of Leicester Tigers was suddenly branded unsuitable by the tournament’s evaluation committee. Instead, the King Power, or as the organisers insist on calling it, the Leicester City Stadium, was chosen. And to rub salt in the Tigers’ wound, it lies only a hefty kick away from Welford Road.
The outcry was immediate. “The mildest description is outrage,” said Tigers chief executive Simon Cohen.”We thought it was absolutely disgraceful that Welford Road, which is a hotbed of English rugby, wasn’t going to feature in an English World Cup”.
Attempts to overturn the decision –which even included local MP Jon Ashworth raising the matter in Parliament, and petitioning from the region’s chief constable, bishop and both its vice-chancellors – proved futile.
World Rugby, the governing body, stood by a recent tightening of its regulations, which meant Leicester’s pitch, was deemed two metres too narrow, with the ground also found not to meet minimum requirements on changing rooms, anti-doping, and broadcast and media facilities.
Tigers supporters might have expected to be appeased with some plum World Cup ties at affordable prices, but those hopes were crushed when they were handed three of the less attractive fixtures: Argentina v Tonga, Canada v Romania and Argentina v Namibia. With tickets costing anything up to £150, it was seen as another slap in the face for the city.
All this has even prompted what might be considered an attempt to hijack the tournament by the club, who have decided to erect an unofficial fan zone at Welford Road to show World Cup matches – including the two Argentinean matches at the King Power Stadium. There were rumours that World Rugby could try to block the Tigers erecting their own fanzone, although that would risk alienating further a rugby community they desperately want to win round.