THERE are so many reasons to like the idea of hosting the 2023 Rugby World Cup that it’s hard to know where to start.
Among them are the levels of co-operation that would be required between those who previously wouldn’t have been bedfellows but who have been building excellent relationships over the last decade or so and who would continue the process through the rugby bid — the GAA and the IRFU and the two governments on the island being the most obvious.
One wag suggested this week that it was nice of the GAA to allow the IRFU to come on board with its bid to host the event. The reason for the joke is that the semi-finals and final would have to be staged at Croke Park where 81,000 people could be accommodated, rather than the 50,000 maximum capacity of the Aviva at Lansdowne Road.
But, in addition to that, it is the other GAA grounds around the country that will be most necessary, because 10 grounds with a capacity of at least 40,000 are required for the bid to be successful. Indeed, this suggests that even the redeveloped Thomond Park in Limerick and Ravenhill in Belfast would be suitable only for the potentially less popular of group games, notwithstanding the good work done in redeveloping both grounds in recent years.
The 2015 Rugby World Cup in England has attracted some controversy by picking a number of bigger capacity soccer stadia in preference to traditional rugby grounds, solely to facilitate larger ticket sales and revenues. This has been a big issue in Leicester, in particular. This means thatalmost certainly that in an Irish-hosted competition matches might be staged instead in places like Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney or Semple Stadium in Thurles or McHale Park in Castlebar. And, most definitely, Casement Park in Belfast.
That venue in particular would be an extraordinary one in which to host a rugby match, given the history of sporting division in Northern Ireland. While a number of unionist politicians have made a point of going to watch Gaelic games in recent years, the use of Casement Park would be truly groundbreaking and most welcome indeed.
It will be most interesting to see the reaction when a GAA congress is called upon to vote on the opening of GAA grounds to the event. It is possible that a small number will object, but the great benefits to everybody of opening Croke Park on a temporary basis to the Irish rugby and soccer teams while Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped — not least the money the GAA made out of renting accommodation — would suggest this will not be a problem.
That this World Cup bid would be a 32-county initiative, supported by both the Irish and British governments, is also an excellent development. Our government could not go it alone in offering a likely near €120m guarantee to the tournament organisers; the British financial input will be essential to reassuring organisers that the bills will be paid. That the British are prepared to co-operate is as significant in many ways as the invitation to President Michael D Higgins by Queen Elizabeth II to go to Britain on an official state visit.
1/2 International Rugby Board conference today. Briefing Govt colleagues in near future on possible Rugby World Cup bid.— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) November 18, 2013
2/2 We have the transport, we have the stadia, and The Gathering showed what we can do as a people when we rally behind a cause.— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) November 18, 2013
Doubtless there will be those who will be horrified by the idea of the governments offering such a large financial guarantee. But it is not necessarily what it seems. There seems little reason to worry about such an insurance policy being called upon. The size of the grounds, and their convenience to fans of northern hemisphere countries and expatriate followers of the southern hemisphere contestants, suggests that raising sufficient revenue through ticket sales should not be a problem. There are likely to be bigger crowds than attended the last rugby world cup in New Zealand. There should not be a shortfall.
The tourism and business benefits should also be enormous. Independent consultants have estimated that about €800m of outside money would be brought into the economy and spent. Whether or not this holds true cannot be guessed at this remove, especially as many fans might fly in and out on the same day from Britain or France rather than stay in Ireland. But the expectation must be that they would stay for at least a few days. Ireland is fun place for rugby fans to visit. We have sufficient accommodation available, of a good standard.
As Sports Minister Leo Varadkar has indicated, this may well be Ireland’s best chance to host a major sporting event of real scale. Gay Mitchell was once laughed at for proposing 20 years ago that Dublin stage an Olympic games — and it was a widely over-optimistic ambition — but a sporting competition with 20 nations is possible given the grounds, hotels, and telecommunications infrastructure that we have.
The positive experience of hosting golf’s Ryder Cup back in 2006 can stand to us. That event was big but compressed over three days of live action, whereas this would take five to six weeks. The Ryder Cup was no bother to the country, though: More than adequate preparations were made and everything promised was delivered.
It is notable that Fintan Drury of the Principle One agency, which represents Johnny Sexton among other international players, somewhat to the chagrin of some IRFU people, and who was crucial to the success of the Ryder Cup in Ireland, has been among the first to offer support for the rugby idea and to champion the belief that it can be done.
Are there downsides to this idea? There probably are but why be interested in picking holes rather than embracing the possibilities? Sure, it will be essential to plan for all eventualities, to budget properly and to ensure that relationships between all the involved parties are maintained at appropriate levels, but that is surely not beyond the relevant people.
It is not hard to imagine that some will argue that the annual investment required in preparing the bid for 2016 — when the decision as to venue will be made — could be spent elsewhere, or that Ireland is being overly ambitious in wanting to host an event perhaps better suited to bigger nations (even though New Zealand is not that much bigger and certainly suffered greater geographic restrictions). Ignore them.
THERE is no guarantee that the bid will be successful. Japan, for example, was highly confident of winning the rights to stage the 2015 games, but lost out to England, a country that had its turn to host the games previously. France and South Africa, previous hosts, are pitching to do the job again. But Ireland’s standing in world rugby administration is high and its long-standing place among the leading rugby playing nations will help during any political horse-trading.
Ten years may seem a long way away but these things have a habit of sneaking up faster than expected. Hopefully in 10 years’ time this country will have returned to some semblance of economic normality and will be prepared to embrace the opportunity to host a major international event, something that would be like to provoke great pride and joy.
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