Welcome relief as Kiwis look to 2011

NEW ZEALANDERS are very welcoming hosts. Nice people, and far from the image Warren Gatland, a Kiwi, painted of his people, who he said are “prone to arrogance, self obsession and hold an over-inflated view of themselves”.

Gatty’s image couldn’t be further from the truth. Michael Bradley even said on the eve of Ireland’s test against the All Blacks that Ireland and New Zealand share many of the same characteristics. “The New Zealanders and Irish are quite close in terms of mentality — there’s a touch of the head down, hard-working efficiency.”

Hosting is their strong point, and it’s why three years ahead of RWC 2011, you could confidently predict that it will be a successful tournament, even if rugby is at a low ebb in the country following their exit from the RWC last October. Writers here are very pessimistic and think RWC 2011 will be a flop, but NZ is already a magnet for tourists. Tourism is the country’s largest earner of foreign exchange and NZ continues to be ranked globally amongst the world’s top tourist destinations.

One of NZ’s national dailies, The Dominion Post, in association with the Wellington Rugby Union, welcomed the Irish media to a function in Molly Malones in the Courtney Place quarter of this city, nestled between harbours, hills, beaches and bays. Then, on Friday, it was the turn of organisers of the next Rugby World Cup — Rugby New Zealand 2011 Ltd — to set out their stall to the visiting press core at an informal gathering at their offices in downtown Wellington.

The world’s third biggest sporting event comes to the land of the long white cloud in three years’ time, and the organisers are telling us the clock is ticking fast ahead of rugby’s showcase event, which will take place during the September-October window. The final is to be played at an expanded 60,000 capacity Eden Park, Christchuch (home to the Canterbury Crusaders) on the weekend of

October 22-23. NZ will welcome 20 teams, host 48 matches across potentially 11 different venues — venues recognised by players, officials, broadcasters and media as excellent during the Lions Series three summers ago.

Some may argue that it’s bad news for northern hemisphere teams that the tournament takes place during the September-October window. Former Ireland coach, Eddie O’Sullivan, tried to explain away Ireland’s poor performances in France by saying the timing of the tournament was not conducive to players in the northern hemisphere season as it came in a point of the season when they weren’t battle-hardened enough. Yet, it’s worth remembering that Brian Ashton — or some of his senior players, depending on who you believe — managed to bring England to the 2007 RWC final.

RWC 2011 has a lot to live up to if it wants to mirror or better the success of France 2007 and Australia four years previous to that. France was a record breaker on every level with 97% of their stadia sold out; total match attendance at 2.24 million, a TV audience of 4.2 billion and delivering a total economic impact of €4 billion.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the economics here —– and the organisers know that. They estimate RWC 2011 will generate more than NZ$1.15bn (€559m) with the government expected to net an additional $112m (€54m) in tax revenue.

Rugby NZ 20011 chief executive, Martin Snedden, wants the event to do justice to New Zealanders and the international rugby community. “We cannot and will not be able to do this if we are as Mr Gatland describes,” says Snedden. “To successfully deliver this event we are going to have to be generous hosts, welcoming, supporting and looking after all participating teams and their supporters. Arrogance and self obsession can have no place.

“New Zealand must fully grasp the fact that our Rugby World Cup is not all about the All Blacks and our team winning the Holy Grail.”

He added: “Most of us (New Zealanders) will want to see the All Blacks succeed, but this perfectly reasonable desire must not be allowed to detract from our aim of looking after all of our guests as if they are our best friends. Our organisation’s role is to deliver an operationally excellent tournament and galvanise the country to delivering a RWC festival.”

That’s the ideal and Sneddan was gracious enough to accept that there will be issues between now and the starting gun in 2011, but said every global event faces difficult days.

Snedden pointed out that the IRB world rankings will seed teams for the RWC 2011 pool group allocation draw, set to take place this December. It is the first time in RWC history that the rankings have been used in this way. The rankings cut-off date will be December 2008 following the last of the November international matches in Europe. Previously RWC seedings were based on teams finishing positions at the preceding RWC tournament.

It means Ireland, currently ranked eighth, will need to start getting their act together. Between now and December, Ireland face the All Blacks twice, Australia, Argentina and

Canada. Michael Bradley is currently facing a huge challenge out here — though one win from two is attainable — and, when Declan Kidney officially takes over, he will obviously try to target the Argentina and Canada matches for wins. And remember a full strength Scotland, ranked tenth, play an understrength Argentina over two tests this month and if the Scots pull off two wins, they will possibly push Ireland out of the Top 8.

If we take only one victory from our next five Tests, imagine Ireland in another group of death for a third successive RWC. A nightmare scenario could pit us with, say, New Zealand and Argentina…and maybe our old friends Georgia again!


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