And yet, just beyond the gilded lobby, Ugo Monye is holding court in a salon room where light cascades from chandeliers on to walls lined with paintings that swirl with 19th-century Romanticism. Not, I sense, that he feels remotely out of place. He is standing on a low stage, expressing his opinion on matters such as who should be England captain, and the same team’s chances of winning next year’s World Cup. As he talks, he fields questions from an audience that is semi-distracted by canapés and glasses of valpolicella.
This, surprisingly, is what a mini-break with England Rugby Travel – the specialist tour operator that offers trips for those who want to see the titans of Twickenham play – looks like. Everybody here is enjoying the first evening of a three-night sojourn in the Eternal City, which will end with a fixture against Italy at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.
That this will be the easiest match of a Six Nations campaign which will, ultimately, prove disappointing (when England walked out on home turf yesterday afternoon to face Ireland, the visitors had already won the championship) only adds to the air of relaxation. The game is the main reason to travel, but this event for England Rugby Travel clients is also a key element of the fun.
“It’s great to be involved with things like this,” says Monye – an affable, engaging figure, only recently retired (in 2015), who played on the wing for England from 2008 to 2012, and was part of the British and Irish Lions squad which toured South Africa in 2009. “It’s nice to meet people and hear their opinions about the game. People really love this sport.”
Bespectacled and eloquent, Monye is part of a roster of former players used by England Rugby Travel to add stardust to its tour packages. Others include Mike Teague (a stalwart of the Eighties England side who appeared in the 1991 World Cup Final), and Neil Back and Phil Vickery, both members of the conquering team which won the 2003 tournament.
A man of fewer words but blockier presence, Vickery – who stood firm for England at prop from 1998 to 2010 – joins Monye on the panel at a second event, held at the Roma Eventi Centre off the Piazza di Spagna, the evening after. Both are, however, eclipsed by England head coach Eddie Jones, who spends an hour being interviewed and replying to talking points from the floor, even though, at this stage, kick-off is less than a day away. His Australian drawl and straight answers keep the audience enthralled, but he reveals a soft side too, pausing afterwards to speak to a 13-year-old who boldly states his desire to play for the national team and requests advice from the incumbent of the top job.
England Rugby Travel has access to the head coach for such showpieces once a year, and generally saves the slot for a Six Nations match in Dublin or Rome (depending on the fixture list). These two weekends are its most in-demand. This popularity is visible in the happy demeanour of the customers who have booked a dash to Italy. They number just over 500, and have flown in on five chartered (Jet2) aircraft (two from each of Stansted and Gatwick, one from Birmingham), and looked after on every step of the journey – a fleet of coaches is waiting at Fiumicino airport to ferry them to seven hotels.
In my case this is the Starhotels Metropole, a comfortable four-star near Termini railway station, where the tour operator has a desk positioned in the lobby – there to hand out tickets and assist with any queries. It is a slick operation that seems to meet with the approval of rugby followers who rather like the idea of a tickets-and-travel package – some of them with one eye on stretching the concept to next year and the Far East, where the ninth incarnation of the World Cup will be staged in the unfamiliar setting (for rugby) of Japan.
There are plenty of spare hours for sightseeing before the match hoves into focus on the Sunday. As expected, England win by a wide margin – but if the result was largely a foregone conclusion, it did not dampen the vibe around the ground as kick-off approached. There were marching bands, food trucks and, for no apparent reason, a clutch of sports cars – Lamborghinis and Ferraris – in blue-and-white Italian police livery. Whether Japan will provide similar pageantry when the sport’s greatest teams arrive in Tokyo is yet to be seen, but anticipation is clearly building.
How to book
Next year’s Japanese staging of the Rugby World Cup (Sept 20-Nov 2 2019; rugbyworldcup.com) will be the first to be staged in Asia, and will lend itself to pre-arranged travel packages. England Rugby Travel will offer a variety of holidays (0344 788 5000; england rugbytravel.com/rwc2019).
These will range from a seven-night option for those who want to sample the atmosphere via two of England’s pool games (against the US and Tonga) to a 45-night extravaganza – staying in Japan for the duration of the tournament and watching 12 matches in 10 cities, including the final. There will also be a 25-night option that will tick off eight fixtures – not least England’s last pool game against France, as well as two of the quarter-finals, the two semi-finals and the final.
Full details will be released in late April. Packages will start at £5,995 per person. Prices will cover international flights, internal travel, accommodation, tickets, and support staff.
England will not return to Italy for a Six Nations fixture until 2020, but three-night breaks to Rome with England Rugby Travel cost from £499 a head, including flights, accommodation transfer and ticket. Further information on the city at turismoroma.it and italia.it.