BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Rugby’s old-fashioned values filleted in cut-throat bidding war

The main problem with New York is that there is so much of it.

In a letter to World Rugby, Dick Spring expressed shock at some of the findings of the group which recommended South Africa host the 2023 World Cup

Every street and avenue demands attention, the eye forever engaged in a battle between the hustle and bustle on the ground and the magnetism of buildings that reach for the sky. 

And all of this before you even think about leaving Manhattan and rummaging through the other four boroughs.

Among the little gems to have presented themselves in recent times was an exhibition that ran for five months, until January of this year, at the Brooklyn Museum.

 Entitled Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present, it showcased 230 works from 170 international photographers.

The quality and breadth of the images is astonishing, from the obscure but enthralling image of Surma Donga stick fighters in Ethiopia in 1990 to the iconic shot of American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power salute as they stood on the podium after the men’s 200m final at the 1968 Olympics.

“No-one captures moments like sports photographers,” said curator and author Gail Buckland in September of last year when the exhibition was unveiled. “People don’t understand the mastery in the beauty of sports photography because they get so dazzled by either the action or the individual.”

All so true, but there are times when any mug with a camera phone can capture the essence of a moment. 

That was framed perfectly last week when 10 or so Barbarians players, in London to face the All Blacks, were snapped at a team meeting shortly before leaving their hotel for a meal on Halloween night.

There was Steven Luatua at the back dressed as Batman. Others were pictured looking perfectly serious and attentive whilst dressed as Power Rangers, clowns, vampires, pirates or the Grim Reaper.

Another snap showed another Kiwi Dominic Bird dressed rather appropriately as Big Bird and climbing into a black cab.

Basic pics but they captured the dichotomy that is the modern Baa-Baas as they attempt to stay true to the team’s grand old tradition of having fun while mindful of the need to remain relevant — competitive, basically. 

And they did, by the by, losing 31-22 to the world champions in an enthralling game at Twickenham.

This was rugby as it likes to see itself now.

A symbiotic marriage of the old and new. Rampant commercialism entwined with the traditions and virtues of amateurism. A balancing act, like Chinese communism. 

But it was even then being overshadowed by the cut-throat realities of the modern game as news broke that afternoon of Dick Spring’s letter to World Rugby over the bidding process for the 2023 World Cup.

Chairman of the Ireland 2023 Bid Oversight Board, Spring expressed his “shock” at some of the findings of the technical review group which has recommended that South Africa host the party in six years’ time and that was followed by an even more strident communique from IRFU CEO Philip Browne this week.

Both men sought to undermine the South African bid with deep and lacerating swipes whilst at the same time stressing their desire to err on the side of propriety.

It was unforgiving and distasteful and it revealed just how cut-throat such matters tend to be underneath the veneer of rugby’s old-school gentlemanly values.

Don’t even get us started on Shane Ross, but then few parties are emerging from this affair with dignity.

The reaction from many people here to the news the Irish bid was adjudged to be the third best in a three-horse race has been painfully predictable with inverse snobbery towards the rugby union brigade evident on social media and a penchant for self-loathing with jibes about the standard of stadia, transport, and the like.

Criticism is welcome, essential even, but some of the one-eyed nit-picking has been difficult to stomach and seemingly ignorant of the fact that New Zealand hosted a perfectly good tournament just six years ago.

Now, whether Ireland should be bidding at all is another question given the sums involved and the sense that money could be better spent elsewhere but few seem to have wrestled with that conundrum.

As for the French, their response has been volatile. Of the type that tends to reinforce hoary old cliches about Gallic temperaments. 

Bernard Laporte, the French union president, accused World Rugby of amateurism and negligence, echoed the Irish attack on the South Africans and all the while claiming the green bid is dead in the water.

The South Africans have remained more or less schtum. The fact is that they will have an answer ready for every single issue in their bid found by the others.

So, the 2022 Commonwealth Games may have been taken away from Durban but there was no government guarantee given. And security issues? Never been a problem at other major events in the country. And there’s been plenty.

No, South Africa have nothing to gain by engaging in the public bickering and the back-stabbing.

Not unless World Rugby’s Council decides to give the nod to France or Ireland when they convene in London and cast their secret ballots next Wednesday. Oh, to have a camera in the room were that to happen!

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien


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