I happily re-watched the 2003 RWC final on tv last night celebrating the 10th anniversary of England’s magnificent win over the Aussies. It stirred a few memories for me. As Head of Marketing at Cellnet (now O2) I was responsible for signing the sponsorship deal to take our company’s fledgling name onto the England rugby shirts back in 1995 and I’m proud to see that the association continues to this day.
But my links with the team continued after I’d been seconded back into the then parent company BT to oversee the company’s involvement with the 1999 RWC hosted here in the UK and beyond that as we continued to use the England (and indeed Scottish and Welsh rugby connections) to host important client events. Now the most inspired of these, he said immodestly, was with that World Cup winning England team. We had some very strong personal links with some key members of the team and as the tournament progressed I just got a feeling that the team were going to do something special. One of my event contacts (and former colleague on RWC99) R who runs a very successful sports marketing agency these days, made contact with a leading member of the team and asked if we could secure a deal with the team, through him, to make their first corporate appearance after the World Cup with BT. The deal had to be definitive and of course it meant that we had to go with it irregardless of how the team did. If they lost disastrously in the QF’s then it would be a less than dazzling invitation. But this was a great England team and surely they’d go further than that….
The word came back from the team that they were up for the event but we needed to fix a date as there were games being played incredibly by a few clubs involving some of the team members on the first week-end after they returned from Australia, assuming they made the final. We also needed a venue. R came up with brilliant suggestion. She’d made contact with a Labour MP who was keen to build his sporting links as he saw himself, I think, as a possible future Minister for Sport. He agreed to sponsor use of the Members’ room at the House of Parliament as our co-host for the event. It was an incredible opportunity as the room is a beautiful but unhireable venue and would add great prestige. But it was available only on the Friday of the week of the team’s return. It had to do. R contacted the team again and it was quickly agreed to even though it meant that we’d lose 3 members of the team because of the Saturday fixtures. It was a good deal. So all was confirmed.
All we had to do now was start drawing up plans for the room, the guest list, start issuing invitations and wait to see how the team did. The team narrowly defeated Wales in the QF’s. We had very few responses to the client invitations at that point. Yikes. We had a big room to fill. But once England defeated the French in the semis the responses started to pick up. At the very least they’d be meeting some World Cup finalists.
But after that fantastic match when extra time and a last minute drop goal from Johnny Wilkinson was needed to seal a sensational victory, well the bloody phones went into melt down. I had very senior BT Account Directors begging us to get their clients along. It was the hottest ticket in town and even Executive Board members were nudging us for favours on the night. Sometimes hunches pay off eh!
The problem was that the England guys’ diaries got highjacked upon their return. There was the formal parade, the visits to the Palace and 10 Downing St and so on. By the Wednesday we still weren’t sure whether the team would actually be able or willing to make the Friday night commitment with us. The reality was they were being offered small fortunes to do any amount of gigs that week. But the call came through late on Thursday that the team would be there at the Houses of Parliament for us. I actually think they fancied the event as it probably represented the first chance to let their hair down a bit that mad week without the gaze of the tv cameras and the prying paparazzi. And they were all brilliant, doing some great improv stuff, signing everything, doing dozens of photos and mixing with our guests superbly. I thought they might all be keen to head home early but they virtually had to throw us out of the place after midnight.
It was a great great night following a magnificent match and watching again last night for the first time in 10 years reminded me what a thrilling game it was. It didn’t do my career too much harm either! And having the guys tweeting insightful/amusing comments throughout the match about their memories was a brilliant idea. So thanks again Johnny for a moment of magic that’ll last with me, for all sorts of reasons, forever.