It’s crucial for England to build on World Cup next time, says Ritchie

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His status as one of British sport’s most influential powerbrokers might come with a pre-requisite of aloofness, yet his demeanour is anything but.

Walking around the clubhouse at the home of York RUFC, shaking hands with punters, sharing a pint and a spot of banter, Ian Ritchie could be just another suit discussing the previous Saturday’s game.

He looks at home in the environment, perhaps comfortable back in familiar Yorkshire surroundings, having grown up just down the A64 in Beeston, Leeds.

Ritchie asks about the well-being of Reginald Brace, this newspaper’s long-standing and highly-regarded tennis correspondent, whom he worked with during his six years as chief executive of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

Ritchie left that governing body in a significantly better state than he found it. A year in to his tenure in the top job at the Rugby Football Union and he is on the road again to a similar yield.

The RFU he inherited 12 months ago was in a mess, tarnished by the actions of the national team at the World Cup and splintered in the corridors of power.

But just as the national team has emerged from the abyss, so the governing body has risen.

The two often go hand-in-hand, but the mantra of Ritchie matches that of England head coach Stuart Lancaster – success is very much a long-term process.

Building towards the 2015 World Cup on home soil is the priority on the agenda of both men but looking beyond that is also crucial.

Criticism was levelled at the governing body for the sharp decline in fortunes after the World Cup win in 2003, which, under Ritchie’s watch, will not be repeated.

Work on a centre of excellence will begin post-2015, with Ritchie not ruling out West Park Leeds, which has hosted England training camps the last two Januarys.

“It could happen there, but there are lots of things to consider,” says the former Leeds Grammar School pupil.

“Where can you build, what can you build, where’s the right location, does it need to be nearer to Twickenham or further away?

“There are so many elements to look at.

“But a performance centre for a sport the size of rugby union, for all teams not just the senior team, is something that we are all agreed is needed.

“What we are trying to do is put things in place that last longer.

“2015 is a fantastic opportunity for rugby and we don’t want to miss it. We’ve already started investing in more coaches and, hopefully, more volunteers, to get people engaged.

“We’re delighted to have Debbie Jevans as the chief executive (England Rugby 2015) because that Olympic connection is something we really want to replicate for the World Cup.

“At the end of the day, what I want to see is that in 2016 and 2017, rugby participation levels right across the board are really strong and positive.

“It’s a five-year-plus plan to deal with that, not just on the pitch and with the stuff with Stuart, but what we should be doing about community rugby and activation around that as well. So it is a long-term plan.”

Small steps allied with minimal over-reaction is the ethos.

Take Ritchie’s position towards Lancaster, who is already gaining greater influence, having been recommended by an independent review involving Sir Ian McGeechan to be the head of all national sides and player development.

There will be no knee-jerk reaction towards Lancaster in his guise of head coach, regardless of results.

“Stuart has taken the opportunity and really grabbed it with both hands,” says Ritchie, whose first major job last year was promoting the former Leeds coach from interim to full-time head coach.

“The way things have gone speak for themselves. We will lose matches; you’ve got to understand that. We lost to Australia and South Africa, both games that were frankly pretty finely balanced against the top teams in the world, but we stuck with the same set-up, same process, same atmosphere that is there now and you can see that reflected on the pitch with the New Zealand game and then, obviously, the first two games of the Six Nations.

“You have got to look at this on a long-term basis. It is not a week-by-week, result sort of situation. It is more about what’s the general direction and I think the general direction is in a very good place. But we’ve got more to do.”

Lancaster has positioned England to challenge for a grand slam after two impressive wins but even that rare an accomplishment is not a necessity.

The main objective is to continue an upward trend to 2015, when the aim is to be one of the best two teams on the planet at the start of the World Cup.

“Stuart’s not a person, nor are any of the coaching team, that needs reminding about goals,” says Ritchie, 59.

“You want to see a good run of things and it is right that winning becomes a habit, but then you’ve also got to be prepared with what happens when you lose and how you deal with that, and we reflected that in the autumn. We dealt with how to lose and how to move on to the next stage.”

Away from the national team, Ritchie’s remit is about growing the game. Community clubs wants better pitches and bigger changing rooms among other things. Ritchie wants to help.

He also feels that the decline of Leeds Carnegie, Newcastle and Sale in recent years will not have an adverse affect on participation in community rugby, something he points out is “very strong” in the White Rose county.

Nudging that growth even further by bringing an England game to the north – as was tried in 2009 – is unlikely, though, given how much money the RFU make from games at Twickenham.

“We put all the income back into rugby and if we don’t host games at Twickenham, it’s a lost financial opportunity,” he says.

A year into the role and his job is very much a balancing act; balancing income and expenditure, short-term goals and long-term ambitions, and the fortunes of the England team with that of the thousands of people at grass-roots level.

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