November 15 next is a date that has loomed large on the Irish rugby calendar for some time, yet you won’t find a fixture of any consequence on the day.
Of far more significance, at around 11am that morning, the 39 votes held by the members of the World Rugby council will be cast in a secret ballot that will ultimately decide whether Ireland, France, or South Africa get to host the rugby World Cup in six years time.
The IRFU decided more than four years ago to hold nothing in reserve in preparing a captivating and energetic bid, estimated to have cost €4m, capable of winning the process. They have been true to their word and the lingering question now is, will it prove good enough to emerge triumphant.
With the final presentations made to the World Rugby Council in London on September 25, the three bidders have all declared their hand and put their best foot forward at this stage. While all three will continue to use every opportunity at their disposal to push their case — President Michael D Higgins is currently doing his best for the Irish cause on a state visit to Australia and New Zealand — the hard work has been done.
While the council will have the final say, a significant change in awarding the event this time out sees World Rugby’s technical review group make a recommendation as to whom they feel, on the basis of their due diligence and a transparent points system covering key areas such as quality of stadia, infrastructure and, as always, finance, should be awarded the event.
That hugely significant call will be announced next Tuesday and, given the forensic nature of that independent audit, will carry significant weight. Secure the nod from the review group and you are in pole position, without any concrete guarantee, heading into that final vote next month.
All indications are that the technical review group have been really impressed with what the IRFU has on offer but, that said, each individual bid has its merits and strong points. Suggesting that Ireland should get it solely on the basis that South Africa hosted a magnificent event in 1995 as did France, as recently as 2007, simply won’t wash.
The biggest concern for Ireland is that World Rugby needs the vast sums accumulated from the event every four years to promote and run the game on a global basis for the following four years. The record returns generated by England when presiding over the hugely successful 2015 RWC will not be matched by Japan in two years’ time. Hence the temptation to award it to whoever has the capacity to make the most money for the game’s governing body in 2023.
The French delegation were dealt a severe blow on the eve of that presentation to World Rugby last month when the country’s president, Emmanuel Macron, choose to distance himself from the bid due to recent scandals involving FFR president Bernard Laporte.
By way of contrast, having An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar seated at the centre of the Irish delegation and a declaration of support for the Irish bid from British Prime Minister Theresa May later the same day must have resonated with World Rugby.
The French, however, know how to run events of this magnitude and have so many positives to offer, not least magnificent modern, fully-covered stadia, the likelihood of perfect weather, and an excellent transport system.
Quite what the French delegation hoped to achieve by having the late Jonah Lomu’s two sons sitting at the top table on former No 8 Sebastian Chabal’s knee, is highly questionable. I thought it looked a little crass.
n the downside, the fact that they will host the Olympic Games the following year might serve to divert the gloss off the rugby event. Having suffered that blow from president Macron, the French have attempted to buy the tournament by offering €30m more than the minimum tournament fee set by World Rugby.
That said, the Irish delegation are fully confident that, given the Irish government guarantee in respect of that baseline hosting fee of €120m, they will be capable of delivering full stadia for all games as that state guarantee means they will be in a position to sell some tickets for as little as €15.
In the South African corner, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa highlighted the unifying effect rugby had in their country back in 1995 when Nelson Mandela presented the Webb Ellis trophy to Springbok skipper Francois Pienaar. I was in the stand in Johannesburg that day and it was powerful, the most emotionally charged sporting event I have ever attended.
However while Ramaphosa claimed that to be an all-white team, ignoring the fact that Chester Williams was a revelation on the wing throughout the campaign, he has pointed to the diversified make-up of the current Springbok side as a shining example of the progress made since the horrific days of apartheid. That has been achieved by implementing colour quotas in selection and in effect is apartheid in reverse. It is not a team picked on merit.
Close on 400 South African players, including CJ Stander, Jaco Taute, and Jean Kleyn at Munster, now ply their trade overseas. As a consequence, the quality of the national side has been diluted to such an extent that they are in danger of becoming uncompetitive.
Over the last 16 months alone, Ireland won in South Africa for the first time, Japan beat the Springbok’s at the last World Cup and Italy defeated them last November in Florence. While the playing strength of the potential host will have no bearing whatsoever on the winning bid it does, in South Africa’s case, serve to highlight the myriad of complex issues facing their rugby union at present.
Apart altogether from the challenges on the field, their bid must be compromised by the fact that they will face a massive task in attempting to fill their stadia. While the quality of those arenas, many built from scratch for the soccer World Cup back in 2010, are the best of any of the three bidders, the home fans simply will not be able to afford tickets to attend the matches.
This was a big factor when the Lions last toured there in 2009 and the majority of the provincial games were hosted by half empty stadia. I recall having a chat with 1995 World Cup winning centre Brendan Venter in Stellenbosch, asking him if he was heading to the game against the Emerging Springboks in nearby Cape Town the following night.
“Unfortunately not,” he said. The tickets were too expensive, over four times what the locals would pay to watch a Super Rugby game. “I will wait for the test matches.” Venter is a highly successful doctor. If the tickets were overpriced for him, what chance had the ordinary punter?
The issue that struck me when returning to South Africa for Ireland’s three test tour in 2016 was the heightened sense of personal security undertaken by those living there. Crime is a big issue in South Africa.
Catching up with former Heineken Cup winning Munster full back Shaun Payne on that visit, he described the horrific experience he went through after being kidnapped at gunpoint and tasered with 50,000 volts before his assailants robbed his house. Several other expats I caught up with highlighted similar concerns.
Another challenge for the South African delegation is to convince rugby’s governing body that the corruption that that appears rife, even at the highest seats of power in the country, will not impact on the tournament in any way.
As a pure sporting venue, South Africa has so much going for it in terms of value for money and some truly amazing places to visit but, when weighed against the potential of a first ever, Irish-based tournament, I am convinced we could deliver something truly unique. Let’s hope that technical review group concur with that view when they declare their hand next Tuesday.
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