Transparency loses out to Gallic charm in race for 2023 Rugby World Cup

So much for transparency. For all the good intention of overseeing the most open, least questionable bidding process for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, governing body World Rugby is this morning as big a loser as South Africa, whose bid it unanimously recommended on October 31.

Both the organisers and its chosen host for the game’s biggest showcase had their pants pulled down by France yesterday as Bernard Laporte and his buddies proved there is still plenty of room for political dark arts when it comes to staging elite-level global sporting events.

Despite coming second behind the South Africans in World Rugby’s technical evaluation, published 17 days ago, the French effort went into overdrive to convince the blazers casting yesterday’s votes that the evaluators had got their analysis badly wrong and the World Cup should head their way. It was a coup d’etat and it means the rugby world will descend on Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse and all its host cities in six years rather than Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Or Dublin, Cork, and Belfast, for that matter.

The people behind Ireland’s World Cup 2023 campaign may not have liked the technical evaluation, which placed its bid third of the three candidates, but at least they knew where they had fallen down.

When it came to the decision that mattered, yesterday’s vote by World Rugby’s Council members, the Irish delegation was left as much in the dark as the rest of us as to why their efforts were rejected.

Eight measly votes of a possible 39, cast by secret ballot in a London hotel was Ireland’s return for four years of glad-handing on a global scale. It was a conclusion as pitiful as the denouement of the Republic’s FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign the previous evening and just as unpalatable.

The slick presentation made to World Rugby on September 25 amounted to this country’s very best shot. Most observers and the bookmakers ranked it the leading effort of the three bidders, out-manoeuvring its rivals with an emotional call to the diaspora, the promise of plenty of cráic and an overhaul of existing stadia. That and a solid economic package that met with bid criteria ticked all the boxes as the Irish saw them. Trouble was, World Rugby had moved the goalposts. Both the French and the South Africans upped the ante in terms of financial guarantees while the governing body had instructed its evaluators to elevate current preparedness in its qualifying criteria at the expense of a bid’s vision of what it could deliver in 2023.

The upshot of which became glaringly clear on Halloween, when the five-man board of World Cup Rugby Ltd unanimously recommended South Africa.

Stadia and experience in hosting major championships in the recent past had been given the most weighting of the six categories, and while Ireland did well in the vision category it counted for just 10% of the total.

So far, so transparent, but the real kick in the teeth was yet to come. The fact that there were two weeks before the deciding vote was seen as a positive for the Irish bid, which along with the French set about crying foul at the analysis presented in the technical evaluation.

Here again, though, this island was outfoxed. With two Six Nations candidates, there were bound to be divided loyalties and it was only England who stayed loyal to their neighbours while Celtic cousins Scotland followed the money and France’s bait of the highest returns as Wales fell in line with its Rugby World Cup board member Gareth Davies’ initial recommendation of South Africa.

It is perhaps another reminder that, like a cadre of generals re-taking power in a fledlging democracy, rugby’s old guard still hold sway.

You felt for the South African delegation, meekly applauding as Bill Beaumont opened the envelope and declared France the winners, while one also has to feel some sympathy for World Rugby. After decades of seeing football World Cups and successive Olympic Games’ bidding processes sullied by dodgy dealing, dubious horse trading and more backhanders than in the first round at Wimbledon, the oval ball’s governing body believed it was leading the way when it announced an overhaul for its 2023 World Cup tender.

Unfortunately, for everyone but France, they neglected to see the job through and ensure transparency to the very end.


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