England rugby legend Will Greenwood tells David Johns why he’s thrilled that this year’s World Cup is coming to Birmingham
For a few seconds there was silence and I thought: “Yes… I’ve got you Will Greenwood!” I’d heard that Will possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of all things rugby but I reckoned I had the prefect question to leave him reeling. I’d thrown him a slippery little number that even an England rugby legend would surely struggle to handle. When was the last time 15-a-side had been played at Villa Park? Surely rugby union had NEVER been played at Villa Park, had it? Will and I had been talking about the thrill of this year’s Rugby World Cup coming to the Midlands. Two great international clashes on the pitch famous for its glorious highs and lows in the game with the round ball. With hardly a pause for thought, Will said: “1953. That’s when the touring New Zealand All Blacks beat a Midlands side 18-3 at Villa.” Impressive knowledge… but just in case he was stringing me along, I checked up the date for myself after we had finished our interview – and sure enough Will was right on the money.
Fifty-two years on, the countdown is underway for the return of international rugby to the region as England hosts the sport’s most coveted competition. After strong lobbying by Birmingham Council, Villa Park is one of eight football stadia across the country selected to stage rugby matches when the World Cup comes to these shores this summer. The region’s rugby fans have already had a taste of top class club rugby this year with Wasps moving to their new home ground at the Ricoh Arena. When the World Cup arrives at Villa Park later this summer, it will have a distinctly southern hemisphere feel too, as the powerhouse elite nations of South Africa and Australia will play there on consecutive days. Two matches that rank alongside when the stadium hosted games in the 1966 football World Cup and more latterly the 1996 European Championships. Will is more than doing his bit to whip up the excitement a few months ahead of the big kick-off. “I’m a real lover of rugby in and around the Midlands having played here myself and seen how passionate the people are about the sport. They are big supporters of rugby and I know they will welcome the World Cup with open arms and give Villa Park a very special atmosphere. There’s no one like Brummies for enjoying their sport.”
With both Villa Park matches already sold out it seems like Will is right on that one, too. The World Cup brings back incredible memories for the former Leicester Tiger who was a member of the England team which won the title so dramatically in Australia in 2003. “That was an amazing moment, and if England can do the same this year here on home soil it would be magical. They have every chance. I keep thinking of the fact that the final will be played at Twickenham and I can see England hopefully growing and getting stronger as the year progresses towards the tournament.” Since retiring from playing in 2005, Will has become a leading TV and media pundit on the sport. He’s been a regular on Sky’s rugby coverage and writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph. He’s also fronted Sky’s School of Hard Knocks series, changing the lives of rough, tough, but ultimately good kids.
Even so, he admits he’ll feel a twinge of emotion when the teams run out in this year’s World Cup. Like all ex-pro sportsmen, he misses the taking part – although he doesn’t miss the pounding his body used to take. The physical beatings were so bad that he says his mum ended up unable to watch him play. “When I played in the World Cup she couldn’t watch it – she just walked around the stadium out of sight of the pitch with Jonny Wilkinson’s dad. She couldn’t sit through it all.” He’s expecting a more relaxed, if highly competitive, atmosphere at Villa Park this summer: “The Birmingham crowds are going to see wonderful teams playing wonderful rugby. I think it will be an absolute jamboree and festival of rugby to savour.”
VILLA PARK CLASHES
- South Africa v Samoa – Saturday 26 September
- Australia v Uruguay – Sunday 27 September
- Made England debut against Australia in 1997/98 season
- Won 55 international caps during his career
- Won the Six Nations with England in 2000 and 2001
- Won the World Cup with England in 2003
- Three-time tourist with the British Lions
- Second highest international try scoring centre of all time
- Away from rugby, has three children, loves playing golf and is a life-long Manchester City fan