At some point Ireland will be as good as it gets for rugby, says Kieran Shannon
Ah, lads, who do ye think ye are?! The irony was probably lost on them but in making Ireland look like such small boys with delusions of grandeur, World Rugby, with its technical report, came across as precisely that themselves.
Ireland, it plainly — and quite correctly — stated, hadn’t the required standard of ready-made stadia. Nor had it a tournament track record of its two competitors. “The [Irish] cities lack prior experience of an event on the scale of RWC,” it declared, “and therefore scored lower than France and South Africa who have significant city delivery major event experience.” To read it another way, Ireland hasn’t hosted a soccer World Cup. It shouldn’t get the Rugby World Cup because it has no earthly hope of ever staging a Fifa World Cup or an Olympics.
Because supposedly that’s the bracket of elite tournament we’re talking about here. According to World Rugby itself, the RWC has been the third-largest sporting event in world sport, behind only the aforementioned Olympics and soccer World Cup. Ahead of the European or Copa America soccer championships, Winter Olympics, Tour de France, any tennis or golf major, and the NFL, MLB, and NBA playoffs.
Never mind that, in 2007, when World Rugby would have already been advancing this claim, the World Cup final was watched by only 33m viewers, with all but 3% of that audience coming from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and the six nations, while the 2015 Cricket World Cup final between India and Pakistan was watched by almost 1bn people. As Gary Verity, the man who brought the Tour de France to Yorkshire, put it a few years ago: “Saying you’re the 11th biggest event in the world just lacks ‘wow’.”
Touting that you’re only behind the Big Two and in the same league as them creates a very seductive illusion to prospective corporate and public-sector partners. Ireland hasn’t been the only party bigging itself up in this whole RWC lark.
Rather than showing just how big and great World Rugby and its flagship international tournament is, the technical report illustrated just who the real big dog at work here is — football. Essentially World Rugby is looking to piggy-back on the popularity and infrastructure of the true world game.
South Africa’s bid features seven cities and eight stadia (in retrospect, Ireland might have been over-reaching in proposing 10 towns and 12 venues). Of those eight stadia, four were built from scratch for the 2010 soccer World Cup. Another, the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, was purpose-built for the 1995 RWC. Only three of the eight venues existed before the hint of a World Cup coming to town and all three were majorly renovated for those tournaments.
All 12 venues in the French bid have a soccer team as the major anchor tenant. All but two of the 12 venues were built or renovated for a major soccer international tournament — the 2016 or 1984 Euros, or the 1998 or 1938 World Cups.
Seen in that light, the technical review report isn’t quite as impressively clear-eyed as was originally perceived; in fact, by failing to mention and factor in such historical considerations, it comes across as a bit fresh, even disingenuous.
Before the sniff of a major soccer tournament, all but one of South Africa’s and France’s proposed venues required “significant levels of upgrade”. The one exception, the aforementioned Free State Stadium, was also “high risk”.
The only reason South Africa and France have ready-made stadia now is because some time ago, others — primarily world football — took a risk, made that leap of faith. Calculating that it’ll all work out “grand, sure” isn’t an exclusively Irish phenomenon; it’s pretty much universal for any country looking to host a major tournament for the first time.
By including the Aviva, Thomond Park, and Ravenhill in its bid, Ireland actually has the most rugby-only or rugby-primarily venues of the three bids. Its fault, it seems, is that soccer, as a spectator sport anyhow, just isn’t big enough in this country; its crime, that the GAA was the only other girl in the dancehall.
True enough, when you look at some of the occasions each of the South African venues have hosted, it puts Celtic Park’s golden hour, the Down-Derry first-round classic of 1994, in the shade.
But by questioning the size and state of Ireland’s stadia, World Rugby’s technical review group has surely triggered questions about New Zealand’s future suitability, even though it is the one place on earth that can be truly called Rugby Country.
Stephen Jones of The Sunday Times boldly claimed Ireland will never host an RWC, that future tournaments will be rotated round a small number of established rugby nations with major economics. But that World Rugby would also keep an eye towards future potential growth markets — US, Italy, and even, eventually, Germany.
On the second count, he is undoubtedly correct: after the bold choice of Japan 2019, future World Cups will predominantly alternate between the same few countries — England (with the odd game in Scotland and Wales), France, Australia, South Africa. But as for that odd, bolder choice?
Italy could happen; it bid to host the 2015 tournament. A US RWC isn’t beyond the realms of possibility either. But Germany? Like Spain, rugby isn’t on their radar, even if they’re on rugby’s.
For all the objective criteria World Rugby tried to apply to the 2023 bidding process, it invariably was susceptible to some confirmation bias; on security, South Africa scored as high as Ireland, as if you’re as likely to be murdered or robbed in Castlebar as Johannesburg. It seems they’ve recognised that South Africa can no longer be assumed to be a power in world rugby, that rugby needs to hold on to South Africa and to do that, South Africa needs this World Cup. As well as that, this is South Africa’s fourth consecutive bid. How much rejection should a place take?
But neither should Ireland be taken for granted. Should the IRFU’s bid fall short next week, it should not be perceived or portrayed as a failure; like sport itself, you often have to lose one to win one in this bidding game. Instead the IRFU and its partners would be best advised to go again for a 2027 or 2031 tournament, only this time, instead of Bob Geldof quoting Yeats, maybe have him paraphrase a lyric of his own in the face of a possible bid from a USA: Do They Know It’s On At All?
If ever an RWC takes place in Ireland, everyone here will know it is on. It’ll be the ultimate for us. As good as it gets. And thus make us an ideal bedfellow for World Rugby. Because with no Germany or Russia lining up to stage a RWC, at some point Ireland will be as good as it gets for rugby.
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