It's nerve-racking enough to be a player, coach or organising body involved in a big sports tournament, such as the current Rugby World Cup. But it's arguably worse if you're a brand owner who has invested millions in such an event and, as most of them do, cherry-picked your top performers and likely winners.

O2 is a long-time England supporter Handout

A few days in to the RWC, we've seen a barrage of ads and a few shocks in the tournament. South Africa losing to Japan in their first game was probably the biggest shock in rugby history, and a very nasty one for South Africa's sponsors. Holders New Zealand wobbled against Argentina for the first hour of their opening game, while hosts England were none too convincing against Fiji.

England going out in the qualifying group is both the organiser's and the England corporate "supporters'" worst nightmare but it could happen as they have to play top teams Australia and Wales.

Last week, we saw a big TV and online campaign for O2, not a World Cup sponsor but a long-time England team supporter. It has held RWC-related events at its O2 arena in London, painted all its UK stores with the England logo and produced a highly expensive animated campaign through agency VCCP.

It features England captain Chris Robshaw, among others, but when the commercial was being created there was no guarantee that the Harlequins player would have been fit or even selected. Had an accident occurred, the campaign would, presumably, have been dumped. Should England go out in the qualifying group it will, presumably, still be dumped and there'll be some hasty retouching of O2 facias.


Beats by Dre, the Apple-owned headphones business, also unveiled a whopper campaign, by agency R/GA, featuring Robshaw along with New Zealand captain Richie McCaw and star France player Wesley Fofana. Rugby players wear headphones as they get off the bus on their way to the changing room, trying to look tough and impervious to the pressure. It's actually a terrific campaign despite marshaling every nationalist cliché in the book.

But it could still have been undermined if anything untoward had happened to its heroes. And it will only work if two at least of the three teams make it through the group stage and then the early rounds of the knockout phase.

Many years ago, in 1996, England hosted the European Championship. Terry Venables's excellent team lost, unluckily, to Germany in the semi-finals – England's last good performance in such a tournament.

Eric Cantana
Eric Cantona Handout

France was one of the fancied teams (they later went on to win the World Cup on their home turf in 1998). Sportswear firm Nike ran a huge outdoor poster campaign in the run-up to the championship, featuring bad boy of French football (English football too in due course) Eric Cantona.

But Cantona, alas, lost his place in the national side following his kung-fu kick incident a year earlier for Manchester United in a match against Crystal Palce. Despite reaching the end of his ban and playing for his club side again, Cantona wasn't selected for the Euros. Whoops. You can imagine the consternation in the Nike boardroom when that decision came through. So there'll be a number of winners and losers in this Rugby World Cup. And they won't all be on the pitch.

Stephen Foster is editor of More About Advertising, a former editor of Marketing Week and a London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.