RFU and O2 ring up new rugby sponsorship deal
When England's rugby union team take the field at the Stadio Olimpico to play Italy on Saturday, they will do so with an extra spring in their step following their Calcutta Cup victory over Scotland.
And off the field there is a new confidence, with a new four-year sponsorship deal with mobile phone operator O2 under the Rugby Football Union's belt.
Sport industry insiders say the partnership is worth between £25m to £30m to the RFU over the life of the agreement.
English rugby's governing body had a testing 2011, riven by internal strife which saw three chief executives at the helm during the year and a poor World Cup which resulted in the departure of team manager Martin Johnson.
However, the RFU and O2, in renewing their partnership, hope that 2012 can herald a new start for English rugby.
The Six Nations opening match win over Scotland came after another commercial partnership was agreed, signed in January with Lucozade maker GSK.
The O2 deal will run beyond the 2015 Rugby World Cup, which is being held in England. The mobile phone operator and RFU are hoping that the event will give a much-needed boost to the sport.
'Grass roots' vision
"This is a very important announcement with O2, a firm we have been working with for over 16 years," says RFU acting chief executive Steve Brown.
"It is about working directly with the grass roots as much as the professional side of the game.
"It is also good to have this on top of the result last weekend. It is a start, a pointer in the right direction.
"We [the RFU] have been having discussions over the past months, about moving in a new and positive direction."
Mr Brown is the RFU's chief financial officer, but has been working as acting boss since November, and will remain in that role until former All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club chief Ian Ritchie takes over as chief executive in late February.
The RFU says rugby union is the fastest-growing sport in England, and as well as the World Cup boost, Rugby Sevens will be part of the Rio Olympics schedule in 2016.
And as part of its renewed deal with O2, as with the GSK partnership, there is an enhanced emphasis on reaching out to grass-roots rugby.
To that end, O2 will continue its involvement with the RFU's grassroots rugby programmes, building on past campaigns including O2-supported beach and touch-rugby events, with the aim of "making rugby even more accessible to all".
The RFU's chief commercial officer, Sophie Goldschmidt, says that any new sponsorship deals it signs must enhance the experience of rugby-going fans, something it hopes the new O2 deal will provide through delivering rugby content on various digital platforms.
Past offerings for O2 customers have included providing behind-the-scenes footage to smartphone owners of the England players' activities while off-duty.
'Icing on the cake'
The RFU's previous deal with O2 was reported to be worth about £4m a year. O2 chief executive Ronan Dunne admits that "this is an enhanced deal, bigger than previously".
The increased revenues will be useful for the RFU, which will see its income from matches at Twickenham this financial year come in well below those of last year, with just two home Six Nations matches and no autumn 2011 Test series.
Those enhanced financial terms seen in the new deal are to reflect the expected surge in marketing opportunities around the 2015 World Cup, and what the RFU hopes will be an growing interest in rugby union.
Mr Dunne agrees that having the World Cup in England during the life of the new deal is the "icing on the cake".
He said O2 was looking for "interactive opportunities" in the run-up to the tournament and not merely to plaster its logo wherever it could.
Meanwhile, Mr Dunne played down the bad publicity both on and off the field last year for the RFU.
"Any business when it enters into a sponsorship relationship, they always consider who they are doing business with, " says Mr Dunne.
"With recent arrivals on the executive team at the RFU, we looked at our next four years and to see if we could deliver value for O2 and our customers, and the answer was 'yes'."
He adds: "Our focus was very much looking forward rather than looking back. We are confident we can add value to one another."
Now England caretaker coach Stuart Lancaster and his revamped playing team are also hoping to take a big step forward with victory over Italy in Rome at the weekend.