Yesterday’s 139-page report issued by World Rugby has left the IRFU with a lot to digest — the bid team was still consuming the small print five hours after first seeing the document — and acres of ground to make up in the bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
The South Africans?
Busy celebrating by all accounts. Some commentators there are describing the November 15 vote by World Rugby’s Council as a mere rubber-stamping exercise. Bernard Laporte, meanwhile, has all but dismissed Ireland and announced it is now a two-horse race.
The numbers suggest the French union’s president may have a point.
The Irish bid fell over three percentage points short of his team’s effort and another 3pp and more shy of a South African offering which basically outdid its rivals when it came to ‘venues and host cities’ and ‘tournament infrastructure’, two crucial categories.
“We were all pretty much equal in terms of financial resources. We were all going to make money,” said South African union president Jurie Roux.
“What pulled it through for us was our stadiums, our host cities, and our proven track record in terms of hosting international events.”
The Irish continue to talk the talk.
IRFU CEO Philip Browne went on national radio and TV to play on the positives. The review had, after all, praised all three bids as “outstanding” and said all would be more than capable of delivering a “successful” World Cup in six years’ time.
Kevin Potts, the bid director, was another doing the rounds of the media later in the day to put on a brave face and declare this thing far from over. “We actually ticked all their boxes, pretty much,” Potts told the Irish Examiner.
They did and they didn’t.
Ireland were always going to fall short of their two competitors in terms of experience and stadia, but the hope that the nuances of their bid would make up for such supposed shortcomings simply weren’t realised within the framework of a fairly rigid template.
“We knew we were going in against two bids with modern all-seater soccer stadia for World Cups and the Euros,” said Potts. “That’s why our stadia vision was totally different. We were offering GAA and rugby venues right in hearts of towns and cities.
“We put in detailed plans to upgrade all of them and that was confirmed by World Rugby. That’s very clear but South Africa were still scored much higher there despite the fact that what we are offering is very different and has to be different.”
Browne made the point earlier that, while the South African stadia were undoubtedly impressive, the Irish bid had been based on smaller venues that would be filled to capacity without any loss to the pockets of World Rugby.
Aspects of the report actually appeared to be contradictory.
World Rugby confirmed that the Irish bid had provided enough information and certainty to offset concerns over stadia that are in need of upgrading or, in the case of Casement Park, rebuilding, yet they still highlighted this as a “risk”.
Potts asked rhetorically: “What more can we do?”
Equally frustrating was the focus on the lack of experience in this country in terms of major, multi-city sporting events: The sort of barrier that will obstruct many more countries from hosting the tournament in years to come if it is retained.
“How do you get the experience?” said Potts. “New Zealand didn’t have the experience. South Africa didn’t have the experience in 1995. Any major event Ireland has hosted this last 20 years, from Special Olympics to Ryder Cup, Giro d’Italia, we have clearly done so very well.
“In most instances, we always broke records. So, yes, experience and stadia are what appear to be the differentiating factors in this report but, remember, this is your scorecard based on really clinical objective criteria.”
Browne spoke yesterday of this being a “binary” process. The first of those strands has been completed, the second will unravel in mid-November when the World Rugby Council meets at the Kensington Hotel in London to take a vote.
South Africa will need 20 of the 39 available to follow through on yesterday’s head start and, while some unions had already given notice of their intention to go along with the technical group’s recommendation, the result is no foregone conclusion.
The technical review actually rated Ireland’s bid as the most exciting and innovative of the concepts, “with a clear and tangible objective that aligns with World Rugby’s strategic goals”. However, that was only deemed worthy of 10% of the total marks available.
Another factor that the Irish bid can cling to is its rating equal to South Africa in terms of finance and only marginally behind France. Potts is also adamant that their effort is one that has “resonated” with unions around the world.
The politicking will only intensify between now and November 15 and the history of such sporting contests is littered with the tattered dreams of cities and countries that thought they had hosting rights sown up.
Rio de Janeiro was ranked fifth among the candidates to host last year’s Olympics, London came late down the home stretch to take the 2012 Games, while Vancouver and Beijing haven’t let an absence of snow stop them claiming the Winter Olympics.
Stranger things have happened then, but the odds are still very much against.