Eighteen years have passed since the Rugby World Cup brought a bitterly divided country together and provided an impetus for what would become the ‘Rainbow Nation’.
Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar was in South Africa last week for WADA’s anti-doping conference and clearly believes Ireland can further its bid to host the 2023 tournament by adopting a similar tone.
A plethora of facts and figures were flung about by the Minister, starting on RTÉ’s ‘Morning Ireland’ and continuing yesterday afternoon when he spoke to the International Rugby Board’s (IRB) first annual conference and exhibition.
The tournament, we were told on the back of research carried out for the Government, would be worth €800m to the economy and attract 377,000 visitors to the island from the opening ceremony to the final.
We shall see.
Yet, it was only when Mr Varadkar spoke of less tangible benefits that could accrue from staging such an event on both sides of the border that a bid based in no small part on a much bigger cultural and social picture began to emerge.
“Rugby in Ireland has always been a unifying force,” said the minister. “The IRFU wasn’t partitioned and rugby has always been supported by people who are Catholic and people who are Protestants, which wasn’t always the case with other sports — and of course (there are) people who are neither these days.
“Even during the very difficult times, during the Troubles, rugby was a unifying force. The team still travelled, even when there was violence. One I remember very much is when Ireland played for the first time against England in Croke Park. Croke Park is really our main national stadium. It’s the GAA stadium and they have already expressed support for a bid.
“For us in Ireland it will just be a symbol of how far we’ve come from the bad times to much better times now and how rugby can be a unifying force, regardless of politics,” he explained.
It’s a clever tactic.
Such an approach would certainly give Ireland a unique selling point in a bidding process likely to include some heavyweight rugby powers such as South Africa, again, and possible bids from bigger, less saturated markets.
Mr Varadkar will seek approval from Cabinet today to continue engaging with the Northern Ireland executive and the IRFU with a view to tabling an official bid document with a likely IRB deadline of 2016.
Stress tests have been carried out by accountants and statisticians in Fáilte Ireland who have altered the figures contained in the Deloitte & Touche research — lowering inflation or numbers of visitors among others — with the result that the bid still supposedly stacked up.
Mr Varadkar also spoke anecdotally of an enthusiasm among people for a bid, regardless of the unfavourable economic climate, but his insistence on talking up the benefits for participation levels in rugby sounded hollow given last month’s Budget.
The Government did, after all, deem it appropriate to slash the spend on sport by 8%, or €3m, much to the chagrin of a sector which insists it will have a detrimental knock-on effect on cash-strapped NGBs seeking to cater for those wishing to engage in sport.
The bid does, however, have the full backing of the IRFU, whose chief executive Philip Browne has been among those working with political leaders north and south of the border on organising a bid since 2011.
The GAA have also reiterated their support for Ireland’s bid. A motion to make Croke Park and other specified stadium available for a tournament bid in 2023 or 2027 was backed by 93% of delegates at last March’s Congress in Derry.
GAA head of media relations Alan Milton stressed the Association won’t have any further to play in the bidding process.
Milton said “The bid has our support but our involvement from this point out is dependent on its success and it coming to pass.”
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