The England team will arrive at this year's IRB Rugby World Cup (RWC) short on form and confidence. The defending champions are ranked seventh in the world and many fear - or gleefully anticipate, depending on loyalties - an early ferry home from host nation France. But no matter how poor their team's warm-up performance, sports fans invariably await the beginning of global sporting events with enthusiasm and unfounded optimism.
The build-up to this year's RWC has been eerily quiet, so many could be forgiven for being unaware that the event kicks off in St Denis this Friday. Little over four years ago, England rugby fans rejoiced, not simply because the team had won the World Cup for the first time, but because football had been displaced from newspapers' back pages. On the eve of this tournament, it is painfully clear that the sport has failed to leverage that fleeting interest over the past four years, leading many potential sponsors to stay away from the competition.
Some experts cite a dilution of the RWC brand as the cause of the apparent apathy. The latest tournament is being staged by France, but the International Rugby Board's decision to host some pool games in Scotland and Wales has watered down the tournament's allure, according to several industry experts. 'It's a disgrace playing games in Scotland and Wales,' says Steve Martin, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. 'It takes away so much of the atmosphere from the tournament and makes it disjointed and hard to run any French-themed campaigns.'
Despite this, Martin is still surprised that so many brands appear to have shunned the competition. 'It seems the World Cup has suddenly just arrived for some. I'm shocked by the lack of competition in the market. I'm surprised more brands aren't at least creating rugby-related activity,' he says.
Research from Sport+Markt shows that interest in the Cup in England has declined since the national team won the tournament, slumping from 51% of the public in the year following the 2003 tournament to 23% now, despite an upturn in attendance at Guinness Premiership club rugby matches.
Mark Dixon, director at Fuse Sport, believes that football's continued domination of the national sports pages is partly responsible for the dip in interest. 'This trend has been exaggerated this summer by SkySports' battle with Setanta to win the hearts and wallets of football fans, massive investment from overseas investors feeding unprecedented expenditure in the transfer window, new sponsor opportunities in football and new media opportunities such as TalkSport', he says.
Of those brands that could do well out of the tournament, Guinness has won accolades for its sponsorship of English rugby's top flight and has created some of the most notable unofficial RWC-related marketing activity, running rugby-themed TV ads featuring the voice of legendary Scottish coach Jim Telfer.
Dixon also praises the official sponsor of the England rugby team, O2. 'The sponsorship, which was originally a useful tool in communicating the company's rebrand from BT Cellnet to O2 in 2001, is being leveraged through advertising and its O2 'Blue rooms' for customers at England matches, where players relax after games. The brand is unable to fully exploit its sponsorship of the national team, as branding on shirts during World Cup matches is prohibited, but has already promoted its association through the latest Scrum in the Park series in London last weekend.
Official RWC sponsors, meanwhile, have been busy leveraging their deals for months. Orange has hired former England captain Martin Johnson as a brand ambassador and to write a blog for its portal, while Heineken has signed up former internationals Will Greenwood and Michael Lynah for the duration of the tournament. The brewer will have limited marketing opportunities at match venues and on TV, due to French laws restricting alcohol advertising in sports, but has adopted an online strategy to maximise its involvement.
However, Peugeot and EDF Energy, which will sponsor ITV's broadcasts of the matches, have done little to leverage either their World Cup ties or their £4m broadcast deals.
Of the tournament's official suppliers, Adidas, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Gilbert, Goodyear and global law firm Clifford Chance, the most notable pre-tournament work has been by Adidas - two global TV ads featuring the New Zealand All Blacks - and Coca-Cola energy drink Powerade, whose sponsorship of the England team encompasses idents on Sky Sports, the publication of fitness tests on the England squad and behind-the-scenes footage of the team.
According to Martin, the Rugby Football Union itself could have worked harder to promote the England team. 'Everything is bred around the success of the team, and the team that won the World Cup was old and had peaked,' he says. 'The RFU is a very rich organisation and in terms of marketing it could have done more. It seems it waited a year. It has done some good things, but it could engage more with getting kids involved.'
Few are tipping England for World Cup glory this time around, but a decent showing by the reigning champions would offer the sport's authorities another prize opportunity to market the game to a wider audience and gain the exposure that so many involved in the game believe it deserves.