MacNeill: We can take on the world

Could Ireland mount a successful bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup? The early signs are positive

MacNeill: We can take on the world

Few members of the distinguished audience at this week’s 2014 Sport Tourism conference at Thomond Park listened more attentively to New Zealander Martin Snedden as he outlined how his country won the rights to stage the 2011 Rugby World Cup and made it a resounding success, against all the odds, than Hugo MacNeill.

The former Ireland and Lions full-back has been appointed chairman of a group charged by the Government to look at whether this country should bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

MacNeill and another famous ex-player, Keith Wood, had earlier heard Snedden backing Ireland’s credentials for such a massive undertaking.

They are intent on studying every conceivable aspect of the situation before making a recommendation.

“There are three phases to the whole thing,” MacNeill explained. “The first is deciding whether you bid at all; secondly, actually bidding and thirdly on winning the actual tournament bid.

“So what we have to do is go back to the Government, having looked at all the issues and saying whether we should bid or not.”

As for the current feeling? “I haven’t heard any reason why we shouldn’t do it and a good many as to why we should.”

One of the Triple Crown heroes of 1985 pointed his finger at where most, if not all, of the credit for this optimistic scenario should lie.

“The GAA are absolutely fantastic,” he explained. “The first thing you must have is a 80,000 seater stadium for the semi-finals and final. So if we didn’t have Croke Park, the whole thing was a non-starter. Deloitte did a report and looked at 11 stadia around the country.

“Remember there are four rugby stadia, Aviva, Thomond Park, Ravenhill and the RDS in the country. Although the Aviva is the second largest of the 11, the other rugby stadia are numbers nine, 10 and 11. So the GAA are numbers one, three, four, five, six, seven and eight. They have said that they will put their stadia at our disposal. And speaking to Páraic Duffy, typical of the foresight of his organisation, he pointed out that if the World Cup was to come here, it would be a great platform for the country and the GAA. As he put it, part of it would be the Irish culture and the GAA is part of that and it would be great if we could internationally broadcast our games.

“It was fascinating to listen to Martin Snedden speak about New Zealand. So we’ve been talking and listening to people who have run previous World Cups and try and get an estimate of the costs and benefits.

“The New Zealand experience is very powerful because they did it and did it brilliantly and they are a smaller country than we are, if not by much.

“We’re sitting beside England and France, our biggest markets, we’re in the right time zone and we have the infrastructure.

“For New Zealand to host the World Cup, they had to spend several hundred million New Zealand dollars upgrading Eden Park, they had to do it in Dunedin and Christchurch and put in an infrastructure in Auckland.

“We don’t have to do that. It’s pretty much all done, and that’s a huge advantage because it removes a big chunk of costs but also removes one of the most difficult things to predict. It’s like building an extension on your house, someone’s given you an estimate and you hope it’s going to come in [on budget] but you don’t know until you build something. But we will know how many players, officials will be here, how many hotel rooms we will need, how many meals. So when it comes to assessing that cost, you can be relatively sure without having many big chunks of unknown capital expenditure.

“In New Zealand, people got behind it. That’s something we do naturally. The Special Olympics here were phenomenal. We’ve just had the Gathering with 300,000 people visiting. While we have a population of six million on this island, we also have a family of 70 million around the world. So imagine if you give people nine years’ notice and tell them to come back to Ireland, just imagine what is possible.”

‘Ireland’s smallness must be seen as a great attribute’

The chief executive of Rugby New Zealand Rugby World Cup 2011, who delivered a masterclass in the art of staging a major sporting event, is convinced Ireland should bid for the 2023 tournament.

“Two factors stand out – the fact that you already have the stadia in place and your geographical location beside the UK and mainland Europe,” said Martin Snedden.

“In many ways, Ireland is very similar to New Zealand, much the same size, much the same population, but with definite advantages,” he said at this week’s Sport Tourism European Summit in Thomond Park.

Snedden faced numerous obstacles in putting together New Zealand’s organisation of the 2011 World Cup. They only had one stadium – Eden Park in Auckland – capable of hosting more than 60,000 and even then major renovation work had to be undertaken. Above all, though, was the financial challenge, exacerbated by the fact their only source of revenue was via ticket sales.

“We were required by our event budget to generate NZ$269m [€150m]. The pressure was on because the government had been investing hugely in the event off the back of guarantees that we would generate terrific returns for our tourism industry. The rugby union was promising that there would be at least 65,000 international visitors during the event, thus ensuring the generation of hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy.

“The answer to our dreams arrived in the form of Shane Harmon, an Irishman living in Australia. In 2007, none of us had any knowledge of social media. It was never even mentioned at any of our meetings.

“In 2008 Shane joined as marketing and communications manager. He was a social media addict and quickly sold us on the potential of using this platform as the major driver of international ticket sales and visitors.”

The results were phenomenal. Between Facebook initially, then YouTube, Twitter and Flicker, the interest created meant tickets flew out the door domestically and internationally and the budget target was hit two days before the New Zealand-France final. Immigration New Zealand recorded 133,000 RWC international visitors, double the original target.

“Can Ireland do the same in 2023? Without the slightest doubt. This is a wonderful opportunity for your country and a moment in time that you must take.

“Your smallness must not be seen as a handicap. In fact I think it is a great attribute. You are way ahead of New Zealand for stadia and your road system is superior. You don’t want big stadia to cover every game. After all, there will be 48 matches in all and in some cases a venue catering for around 12,000 would be ideal. We learned in New Zealand to appreciate that the World Cup was about 20 nations and not just our own.

“Take Romania for instance... nobody knew anything about them, absolutely nothing, but we discovered there was a Romanian migrant group in a small town called Ashburton. That’s where the team was situated and everyone had a great time. We did that for all 20 teams, with people happy to adopt other countries.

“Then there’s your geographical closeness to Britain and Europe. I think it all stacks up very nicely. Of course you must have all your heads in the right space, all of Ireland, north and south, working together.”

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