IRFU write to World Rugby seeking answers on nine issues over RWC 2023 recommendation

The IRFU has doubled down on its doubts over South Africa’s suitability to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup, with the union continuing to push for answers on aspects of the technical review which last week recommended the Rainbow Nation, writes Brendan O’Brien.

A letter sent to World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper and all 39 members of the World Rugby Council by IRFU CEO Philip Browne, and seen by the Irish Examiner, has again sought clarity on the key bidding issues of security, stadia, finance and tournament experience.

An initial letter from bid chairman Dick Spring to the same council members last week revealed the “shock” at the “narrow operational and theoretical” approach of the technical review group, while questioning the validity of the scoring awarded.

IRFU CEO Philip Browne

Browne has echoed that, stating: “We consider that the mechanical nature of the technical review undertaken [by Rugby World Cup Limited] does not properly capture these clearly material issues... Ireland’s scoring has suffered unreasonably, relative to the scoring for other bidders.”

It’s the latest in a series of back-and-forth, behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings that will ultimately be sandwiched between last week’s recommendation that South Africa be awarded the tournament and next Wednesday’s binding vote on it by the World Rugby Council.

France have been just as put out by some of the technical committee’s findings, with the French union’s president Bernard Laporte publicly accusing the document’s authors of “negligence” and “amateurism” shortly after the publication.

That earned the FFR a strong rebuke from World Rugby, but throwing the toys out of the pram has never been the IRFU’s style. Browne stresses that their “tenacity” in taking this approach was done in a “respectful” manner and fully in keeping with the bid’s code of conduct. He also praised World Rugby’s “professionalism”.

All that said, there is no doubt that the gloves are well and truly off in a diplomatic sense as the Ireland 2023 Oversight Board attempts to make up for a considerable amount of lost ground before the final decision is made in London on November 15.

Little is spared in highlighting perceived shortcomings, especially those of South Africa. The nation is referred to by name in four of the nine specific queries forwarded to World Rugby and by association in all the others.

The focus on the relative capacities of venues in France, South Africa and Ireland and how they would be filled has been a significant talking point and that is touched on again with a reference to “starkly empty stadia” in South Africa for recent major fixtures.

The security issue is recognised as “delicate”, but the bemusement at how all three nations could be scored the same under the stated criteria again jumps off the page, even if the focus on Ireland’s lack of experience in hosting major events touched the rawest of nerves. Rather than focus on Ireland’s suggested shortcomings again, Browne instead chose to pick holes in the South African case and, in particular, on the Commonwealth Games Federation’s (CFG) decision to strip Durban of their 2022 Games. A statement from the CFG at the time was included for effect.

“It is with disappointment that the detailed review has concluded that there is a significant departure from the undertakings provided in Durban’s bid and as a result a number of key obligations and commitments in areas such as governance, venues, funding and risk management/assurance have not been met under the revised proposition.”

If that wasn’t pointed enough, then the concern expressed over the report’s findings on financial commitments and guarantees, “given South Africa’s sovereign credit rating, as categorised by Standard & Poor’s, is BB+ … sometimes referred to as ‘junk’, was perfectly clear”.

The odds remain stacked against Ireland, or France, getting the nod in the English capital next week, when 20 of the 39 votes will be required. New Zealand and Australia have already intimated that they will back their SANZAR compatriot.

Oceania and Africa are also likely to follow suit. Such support equates to 10 votes, halfway there.

Still, the determination of the Irish bid to tick every possible box is evident. The Government yesterday reaffirmed its commitment to the cause, noting the IRFU’s reservations over the technical report, while opting to concentrate on the positives Ireland can bring to the table.

World Rugby have broken new ground by making the deliberations so public this time, but the fact that the deciding vote is by secret ballot takes everything back to the sort of familiar ground where the unexpected is to be expected.

“We consider it critically important that all Council members are reminded that they may vote for any of the three bids and that all bidders have been judged capable of hosting an excellent Rugby World Cup in 2023,” Browne writes.

“Hence a vote for Ireland, rather than for a country who scored more points on the system used in the evaluation report, is not a vote against the process. It is in fact in full keeping with the voting process approved by World Rugby Council.”

CEO’s line of enquiry

Philip Browne’s nine questions for World Rugby.

Stadia:

1. What specific consideration was given as to how South Africa will achieve full stadia, particularly across pool stage matches involving lower-seeded teams?

2. Why is it that only 4% of overall scoring is attributed to ticketing, given its critical importance in delivering a successful RWC? (Note: Detailed weightings and scoring criteria were only made available to host candidates and World Rugby Council on October 31)

3. Why have all bidders been scored the same across ticketing, despite significant risks being identified with two bids and these risks appearing to remain despite the mitigation plans offered?

Security

4. Was an independently recognised, world-class security organisation used to review the underlying security situation within each bidding country, including personal safety, as was the case with the 2015 and 2019 evaluation process and, if not, why not?

5. If such an assessment was undertaken, can you please share the assessment?

Major event experience

6. Did RWCL carry out a full due diligence as to why the hosting rights for the Commonwealth Games in 2022 were taken away from South Africa?

7. Did RWCL discuss this with Commonwealth Games Federation in a substantive manner?

8. Was this raised directly with the South African government and at what level?

Financial, commercial, and commitments

World Rugby appointed an experienced external organisation (Barclays) to conduct an independent sovereign risk assessment related to guarantees, and each of the guarantors, provided by each bid.

9. Can RWCL confirm whether a similar rigorous assessment has been conducted for the 2023 process on each bid and if so can you please share this assessment?

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.


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