The island of Ireland has received a heavy blow to its hopes of hosting the 10th edition of the Rugby World Cup in 2023.
World Rugby, the body in charge of awarding host status for the quadrennial competition, have announced that the independent consultancy report on all three bids for the 2023 Rugby World Cup – Ireland, France and South Africa – has recommended South Africa to host the tournament.
Among the factors considered by the World Rugby Limited Board and external experts in their evaluation of the three respective countries’ bids were: ‘Venues and infrastructure commensurate with hosting a top-tier event’; ‘An environment and climate suited to top-level sport in a geography that allows maximum fan mobility’; ‘A vision that engages and inspires domestic and international audiences and contributes to the growth of rugby at all levels’. All three countries were obliged to provide detailed submissions of how they’d fulfill such criteria and all also produced bid promotional videos.
In spite of recruiting actor Liam Neeson to provide his gravelly, captivating voice to the narration of their bid promotional video, the evaluators certainly were not ‘Taken’ with Ireland’s bid.
While South Africa topped the evaluation with a score of 78.97%, Ireland finished bottom of the evaluation with a score of 72.25%. France, meanwhile, scored 75.88%, in spite of a bid video which is likely to be interpreted as either inspired or cringeworthy, depending on your point of view (see below to judge for yourself).
While the decision is not binding on the World Rugby Council when it convenes on 15th November in London to decide the 2023 host nation, it’s a significant endorsement which leaves Ireland’s bid, if not dead in the water, then greatly dented.
Ireland rugby is highly unusual in that it transcends the two nations on the island, with Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland players representing the Irish rugby team. The bid itself encapsulates this, being a joint initiative from both the Eire government and Northern Irish devolved government. In a time of immense political uncertainty in Northern Ireland, the bid has provided a shining beacon of hope for improved cross-community party relations, with all parties supportive of it. In this sense, it could be argued that the 2023 Rugby World Cup being hosted in Ireland would present an opportunity for a watershed moment, where sport unites and transcends division.
Ironically though, it appears that World Rugby seems likeliest to opt for the country which experienced such a watershed sporting moment when it hosted the Rugby World Cup previously. When South Africa hosted back in 1995 the third edition of the Rugby World Cup, apartheid was still fresh in the memory and racial tensions remained high. The image of Nelson Mandela presenting South Africa captain Francois Pienaar with the William Webb Ellis trophy while wearing a replica Springbok no. 6 shirt, reflected a nation which had become united through appreciation of their rugby side’s fortunes.
With France having far more recently hosted in 2007, Ireland does have the advantage of never having hosted before, as World Rugby looks to expand rugby union’s reach. However, World Rugby are experimenting with Japan in 2019 and so the desire for a more risk-averse host country may also be a factor when the bids are voted upon on 15th November.
Chairman of the Irish bid oversight board, Dick Spring, sought to sound upbeat regardless of the clear setback to Ireland’s bid process the independent consultancy report had produced:
We absolutely believe Ireland can secure the tournament for 2023… Our team will compete to the final whistle as we bid to turn our historic bid plans into reality
Conversely, South Africa’s rugby chief executive, Jurie Roux, talked of a ‘triple-win’ should South Africa be confirmed as 2023 tournament hosts:
A win for the game with record receipts, a win for the fans with an unforgettable tournament in a bucket-list destination and, most importantly, a win for the players with the most athlete-centric event in the tournament’s history
The New Zealand Herald are reporting that South Africa’s bid promised the greatest income returns of all three, promising £160 million in comparison to Ireland’s £120 million.
Ireland can only hope that the £3.5 million spent on the bid, the stardust of Bob Geldof, Liam Neeson and Irish rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll, and the far stronger government backing they received compared to either of their rivals, may cause a late change of heart.