Manchester United have pulled out of the running to host matches at Old Trafford during the 2015 Rugby World Cup due to scheduling concerns and worries there would be serious damage to the pitch. Manchester City's Etihad Stadium is expected to replace it on the stadium shortlist.
It is a major blow for organisers Rugby World Cup Limited, who need to sell 2.9m tickets in order to meet the £80m guarantee it made to the International Rugby Board ahead of being awarded the tournament.
Old Trafford was pencilled in to stage five games during the competition in England and Wales, but United have requested that they be withdrawn from the process because of their existing commitments to hosting rugby league.
The Rugby World Cup will take place in September and October 2015 and United are keen to avoid any scheduling complications as the club could potentially be competing in the group stages of the Champions League at that time of the season.
RWCL are keen for the competition to be spread evenly across the country and hosting matches in Manchester is crucial to their tournament blueprint. They have held positive talks with City who are willing to step into the breach at this late stage in planning, however, the Etihad's capacity is 60,000 compared to Old Trafford's 75,000 and there is the possibility of United expanding their ground even further, although the Glazers' recent plans to do so have reportedly stalled.
United, who will host two rugby league matches this winter, are already contracted to stage future Super League grand finals and believe that rugby union would exert more strain on the pitch compared to the opposing code.
With competitive scrums and rucks potentially tearing up turf to a greater extent than in league, a decision was made by the Old Trafford board and groundstaff to withdraw. Another factor was that the club are installing a new Desso pitch at the end of the campaign, which combines grass with artificial fibres in contrast to their current grass-only surface.
The World Cup organisers have already delayed naming the 12-venue shortlist because of complications regarding the Olympic Stadium. The preferred venues were due to be presented to the RWCL board last month but that decision was delayed because the future of the Olympic Stadium remained unclear.
West Ham United have since been confirmed as the future tenants and World Cup organisers are now confident that the Stratford venue will make the cut from the longlist of 17 grounds.
A final announcement will be made later this month when the Etihad Stadium and the Olympic Stadium are expected to be confirmed as World Cup venues. However, there has been criticism levelled at organisers as only three dedicated rugby grounds – Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium and Kingsholm – were named on the longlist.
They have since been joined by Exeter's Sandy Park, which replaced Bristol City's home Ashton Gate, but there is still a disproportionate number of rugby stadiums compared to football grounds.