Rugby World Cup 2023 bid: A hard lesson in realpolitik of commerce

Two weeks ago Munster and Irish rugby had a harsh commercial reality underlined. 

Despite their best efforts, they could not offer a package to an Irish international, British and Irish Lion, and player who so often provides the spark that inspires Munster, Simon Zebo, to continue playing in the country of his birth.

Irish and Munster rugby were outbid in the race to secure the 27-year-old’s signature and he is expected to join a French club at the end of the season. So be it.

That lack of sentiment defines professional sport, a business epitomised by a hardness that cares little for the loyalties and traditions of an era fading into the mists shrouding forgotten playing fields.

That hard, no-wriggle-room lesson was underlined for Ireland again yesterday though on the world stage when World Rugby declared that South Africa is the preferred candidate to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023.

Though not a final decision — that will be reached through a secret ballot on November 15 — it is very unlikely that the non-binding recommendation will be ignored.

South Africa last hosted rugby’s WC in 1995 when Nelson Mandela’s famous final intervention made sporting history and inspired a Springbok victory.

Despite yesterday’s deeply disappointing announcement, an IRFU statement from Dick Spring, chairman of the Ireland 2023 Bid Oversight Board, declared: “It is disappointing not to have received the initial recommendation ... we still have confidence that the council members ... will place their trust in Ireland to deliver an outstanding 2023 Rugby World Cup.”

Mr Spring’s tenacious optimism is admirable but it may not be enough for Ireland to secure, what Taoiseach Leo
Varadkar described as the biggest world sporting event the island could hope to host.

Just as was the case in the race to secure Zebo’s signature we were, in financial terms at least, struggling to punch above our weight.

Ireland enacted legislation to provide a Government guarantee for the minimum bid of €120m. France offered €150m and South Africa even more at €160m.

It may be a coincidence but World Rugby’s assessment reflected the order of those commitments exactly. South Africa topped the list, France took second place and Ireland’s bid was placed third.

Ireland’s bid received strong government support, unlike France or South Africa. Indeed, French President Macron distanced himself from his country’s bid after allegations of corruption.

Despite that, the French bid was more favourably received than Ireland’s — an eye-opening decision that rubs salt into Irish wounds.

That wound will be felt right across Ireland as the bid was supported in a way that few Irish projects have been.

Commercial, cultural and sporting interests, especially the GAA without whom the bid could not have been made, came together in an inspiring way.

That unity of purpose is admirable but despite it we came last in all but one of the decisive criteria.

This is a concern and a review of this grading must inform the next bid. Once again life reminds us that there is no such thing as a free education and we must learn the obvious, hard lesson — those prepared to pay the most usually win the bidding war.


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