Two years ago Darlington Mowden Park had just two pitches in the middle of a non-descript housing estate, but world champions New Zealand will be calling their club home during next year’s Rugby World Cup.
The upwardly mobile outfit are now based at the arena built for the town’s former football club, and the All Blacks were so impressed by the set-up they have decided to base themselves there in the lead-up to their game against Tonga at Newcastle’s St James’ Park on October 9 next year.
The Webb Ellis Cup was on hand for yesterday’s official announcement, Darlington Mowden Park general manager Danny Brown admitting he was still pinching himself after New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen visited the venue recently.
“To have someone of Steve’s stature in world rugby enquiring about our facilities was massive on its own, but to show him round and sit down for dinner with him was a fantastic experience,” he said.
Darlington Mowden Park are among a number of North East venues celebrating official team base status, with Royal Grammar School Newcastle welcoming Scotland, Northumbria University hosting Tonga and Gateshead International Stadium luring both South Africa and Samoa ahead of the three scheduled games in the region.
The All Blacks will spend six days using the facilities at Mowden Park as well as the indoor pitch at Middlesbrough FC’s training ground, Brown stating: “Being accepted as a possible base was an achievement in itself, but to learn the world champions will be coming here is something that dreams are made of.
“It is fantastic for the whole area, and we were a very small rugby club only two years ago. We now play in the biggest dedicated English rugby stadium outside of Twickenham, and it has been nothing short of miraculous what our club membership of over 900 people has achieved.
“We will welcome New Zealand to the North East as only we know how, and I am sure they will enjoy the experience of training and playing in the region.”
Tickets for the three games at St James’ Park will go on general sale from September 12, Newcastle United’s home ground staging South Africa v Scotland (October 3), New Zealand v Tonga (October 9) and Scotland v South Africa (October 10).
Adult tickets for the matches start from £50 going up to £175, England 2015 chief executive Debbie Jevans defending the pricing policy and insisting all three could sell out. Flanked by the Webb Ellis Cup at yesterday’s official announcement in Darlington, she said: “We worked long and hard on the ticket prices, and particularly those for under-16s because it is so important to encourage youngsters to come to the games.
“Our tickets go on sale on September 12 for a two-week period, and there are some fantastic matches in Newcastle.
“We absolutely believe we have pitched the pricing right for those given the quality of matches that are going to be there, and we have a busy couple of weeks building up to that general release.”
England Women’s captain Katy McLean (pictured left), the Darlington Mowden Park player who this month skippered England’s female side to World Cup glory, was also on hand at yesterday’s announcement, emphasising the importance of team bases during major tournaments.
The fly-half, who this week signed a central contract to become a professional sevens player, said: “You spend more time there than anywhere else during a tournament, and it has got to be right.
“Having a good team base was central to our success in France a couple of weeks ago, and it is going to be massive for Darlington and the North East to be able to call itself home to a side like the New Zealand All Blacks for the duration of their stay here.”