Rugby World Cup Presents France With a Real-Life Olympics Test

The Rugby World Cup kicks off Friday on the outskirts of Paris, with the first match pitting two bookmaker favorites — France and New Zealand. But at stake for the host country is more than just what happens on the field.

(Bloomberg) — The Rugby World Cup kicks off Friday on the outskirts of Paris, with the first match pitting two bookmaker favorites — France and New Zealand. But at stake for the host country is more than just what happens on the field. 

With the 2024 Paris Olympic Games less than a year away, the two-months long Rugby competition will be a live rehearsal for organizers and businesses, testing everything from security, hospitality services to technical preparedness. 

The event is set to attract 600,000 foreign visitors, according to the French tourism agency, with 60% of them coming from the UK. While that’s a fraction of the 16 million people expected to attend the Olympics next summer, a disruption in public transportation or any security incidents around stadiums would be a wake-up call for France.

The country is still scarred by the scenes of chaos that delayed the start of last year’s Champions League football final at the Stade de France, which is where the first Rugby match is being held. France has also had a series of riots and protests this year, with mounds of garbage piled up in cities and teargas-laced battles between the police and demonstrators who set alight whatever they could lay their hands on. 

“It is time for us to show a positive image of the country,” says Guy Savoy, a two-star Michelin chef. Savoy, who’s also a rugby fan and has been a player of the sport, says his restaurants are fully booked. He has visitors coming from around the world, with a party of 45 Australians expected at his restaurant Chiberta, near the Champs-Elysees.

Still, a threatened strike by air traffic controllers on Sept. 15 — capitalizing on the World Cup — has set the government on edge, and raised the specter of similar potential actions during the Summer Games. Several companies that are working on both the World Cup and the Olympics are using the event as a stress test. 

French mobile carrier Orange SA has installed antennas and cables for the pop-up Rugby “village” organizers have set up at the Place de la Concorde in the heart of Paris. The fan-zone will welcome supporters to watch the games, accommodating as many as 39,000 people on a first come-first serve basis. The set up has giant screens, food, a stage and a boutique selling merchandise.

Orange will also distribute live footage to broadcasters worldwide from a center set up in Roland-Garros — the site where the French Open tennis tournaments are held — using an all-IP platform that it will again deploy during the Olympics.

The competition will last for 51 days after a 2019 World Rugby recommendation of five days of rest betweens two matches to protect the players’ health. That’s resulting in longer stays, says Simon Gillham, an executive at event sponsor Vivendi SE and chairman of the French rugby team of Brive. 

“With a lot of rugby fans among the upper socio-professional categories, this will result in a boost for tourism all over France,” he said. Unlike the Olympics events, which will be concentrated in and around Paris, the Rugby matches are being held in nine French cities.

Company executives from sponsors are expected to pack the VIP lounges of the stadiums, hosting lunches and dinners for clients and associates. Societe Generale, a long-time partner of the competition, will host 7,500 retail and corporate customers at 24 of the 48 matches, a spokesperson said.

Renault SA, a sponsor of the French Rugby Federation and the national team, is only inviting a few hundred customers and its French car dealers, partnerships director Stephane Barbat said. The carmaker is banking on a heavy ad campaign to boost its brand, especially in French regions where the sport is popular, he said. 

On Thursday, the day before the opening match, the giant store at the Place de la Concorde was packed with shoppers from around the world forking out €100 ($107) for a “Replica” rugby shirt and a range of other items like baby clothes, caps and water bottles. The buying frenzy had left the store with a few sizes temporarily out of stock. Some customers are spending thousands of euros at a time on merchandise, a vendor said.

Chef Savoy, meanwhile, said he’s less worried about the World Cup than the Olympics. The opening ceremony of the Games will take place along the Seine river, just under the windows of his main left bank restaurant, set in la Monnaie de Paris. 

Transport chaos may hit reservations, he said, adding, “I will need a company to fully book the place, otherwise I will close.” 

–With assistance from Alexandre Rajbhandari and Tara Patel.

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