#RWC2023: This may only be the end of the beginning

South Africa began the day as favourites to land the hosting rights for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. 

They ended it choking on the dust of others. Eliminated in the first round of voting by the then International Rugby Board’s Council who went for New Zealand ahead of Japan.

“We thought we’d done our homework, this has come as a complete shock,” said Ncula who was serving as the deputy chief executive officer for the South African Rugby Football Union that fateful day in Dublin back in 2005.

“We thought we’d prepared for every eventuality, we did a very, very good job. We had the support of the government and we had very positive responses from the unions but in a secret ballot, anything can happen.”

The IRFU will hope the same twist applies in just under two weeks’ time when World Rugby’s Council gathers at the Kensington Hotel in London and 39 members close the doors behind them before deciding who gets to hold the tournament come 2023.

Other scenes from the controversial vote a dozen years ago bear noting now as the Irish bid team looks to minimise the fallout of the technical report on potential hosts which ranked them third behind South Africa and France.

Syd Millar, president of the IRB, commended all three on the excellence of their offerings and remarked that any of them could have held a “successful” tournament. Last Tuesday’s report made identical noises.

Yet amid the cacophony of sound bites back in the mid-noughties, the offering from the Japanese union’s president stands out.

“All the boys in the meeting were saying that we have to make rugby global,” said Yoshiro Mori. “So why do we have to wait for another five or 10 years to make this happen?”

Ireland have used the same argument but would they follow Japan by committing to another push?

The IRFU’s bid team won’t countenance that now. Not publicly. “We’re only focusing on 2023,” the chief executive Philip Browne said in March after chaperoning World Rugby’s technical review group around the country.

“To be looking ahead to 2027, there is a lot of water that has to go under the bridge before then, so we’re focusing on 2023.”

The rhetoric from the IRFU and even Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been bullish since Tuesday’s news but the Irish candidacy shipped another heavy blow later in the week even as they scrambled to curry favour with Council members ahead of the November 15 powwow.

It emanated from New Zealand — for so long seen as a potential backer for the Irish bid thanks to the crucial role the IRFU played in securing the 2011 gig for them — who announced that they would go along with the official recommendation.

Add their three votes to the trio Australia have intimated will go towards South Africa’s cause, two more from Oceania that will likely follow the lead of the region’s two heavyweight nations as well as another pair from Africa and that is halfway to the 20 nods required.

Quite the head start although there was a beacon of hope from London yesterday with the understanding that the RFU will consider the work of an internal group it established to examine the bids as well as the official recommendation before adopting a position.

It may well still be that they follow the Kiwi approach with the New Zealand union chief executive Steve Tew confirming their intention to follow the party line while praising Ireland (when asked) for the manner in which they made their case.

“When you have three strong candidates, as we did for 2011, you’re going to have a disappointed group or two,” Tew explained. “One would hope (Ireland) would be keen to have a go in 2027. World Rugby is in a good position.”

It’s a line that echoes another of those uttered by Millar 12 years ago when offering condolences to Japan. His contention then was that the Asian union had “learnt a lot about themselves and bidding” and that they would be strong contenders again.

They were, of course. Other precedents back that up. England lost out to France in 2007 before securing approval for 2015 and South Africa have shown nothing if not persistence in this their fourth consecutive attempt to land rugby’s showpiece circus.

Ireland’s bid team began its work in 2012. This may only be the end of the beginning.


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