Today is a critical one in the hopes of Ireland to stage the Rugby World Cup in 2023 as a delegation led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Bid Ambassador Brian O’Driscoll go before the Executive of World Rugby alongside representatives of France and South Africa.
When the book comes to be written of how Ireland won the right to host the Rugby World Cup of 2023 much will be said of how a team of individuals came together every week on the fourth floor of the IRFU’s Headquarters on Lansdowne Road to plot, plan, tease and secure the twenty votes needed when the count is taken on November 15th.
They have brought together the kind of detailed knowledge of personalities, politics and mood music that Frank Underwood would tip his hat to if this was an episode in House of Cards.
Tomorrow the room will be empty as its regular residents will be in London pitching their story to, and answering questions from, the Executives of World Rugby who have been poring over the detailed bid documents of Ireland, France, and South Africa since the summer.
There will be evocative videos featuring Bob Geldof, Bono, and Liam Neeson. There will be political support at the highest level from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who will fly in to be part of the team alongside Bid Ambassador Brian O’Driscoll, David Sterling, the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, IRFU CEO Philip Browne and Kieran McLoughlin, Worldwide President and CEO of the Ireland Funds.
There will be talk of legacy, of supporting the global development of World Rugby and of money.
In recent days, it is the latter that has come to the fore with talk from Ireland that our financial offer is better than any ever received by World Rugby.
In a high-stakes game, France has said more suggesting they will top the required hosting fee of €135 million with an additional €35 million. Those numbers will be further boosted, at least in French imaginations by staggering amounts they are suggesting can be gleaned from corporate hospitality, adding up to a potential surplus of over €300 million, almost three times that generated in England.
Experts who have run the rule over some of their figures suggest they are fanciful at best. They rely on estimates that far exceed the amounts gleaned for hospitality from the 2015 World Cup in England and the Euro 2016 Championships in France.
Inflation is allowed but not to the extent that France is suggesting.
France is using financial muscle to come out swinging after their bid suffered a number of setbacks over the past month. The Government has called for an inquiry into alleged conflicts of interest between French Rugby President Bernard Laporte in relation to the Altrad Group and its owner Mohad Altrad.
A string of resignations from an Appeals Board over suggested favourable treatment of Altrad;s Montpellier club has led to mounting pressure on Laporte in his bid to bring the World Cup to France only 16 years after it was last held in the country.
A further blow came when President Emanuel Macron pulled out of his participation in tomorrow’s pitch citing a ‘scheduling clash.’ There was no such clash when it came to Paris’ bid for the 2024 Olympics.
That France won the Olympic Race can also be seen as a positive for Ireland. Two years out from World Cup 2019 World Rugby was moved to admonish the local organisers to pick up their pace of preparation. Sources in Asia have told me that the slow pace is down to the very long shadow being cast by Tokyo hosting the Olympics less than twelve months after.
If a lesson is to be learned from going toe to toe with the biggest, slickest sports marketing operation of all time, it may be not to do so again straight away.
Kieran McLoughlin’s presence among those who will be in the room tomorrow representing Ireland is important. He is the key to the Irish Diaspora in the US which has become one of our most important weapons.
Expanding the sport to the lucrative US market is seen as vital for Rugby. Ireland and the All Blacks drew over 60,000 to Soldier Field in 2016 and there are powerful people within the upper echelons of US business, of Irish heritage, who are willing to row in behind an Irish World Cup as a gateway to the sport taking off in the US.
Think of all those high school and college footballers who never make it in the pro ranks of the incredibly narrow NFL and imagine how successful a US surge could be for the sport.
South Africa Threat
Ireland’s bid then is to the future. The biggest danger though may yet come from a desire to protect the pillar Rugby country of South Africa from imploding.
Last weekend’s 57-0 drubbing by the All Blacks was a marker for how the sport is struggling in one of its heartlands. Behind closed doors, the threat may be that without a World Cup South African Rugby will die. That would strike fear into the Southern Hemisphere and the names in the columns on the wall of the IRFU’s war room may yet have some shifting to do.
We understand that senior officials will fly to Argentina after London to make sure that hope carries more weight than fear.
All the triangulation of intelligence, whispers, promises and more has put Ireland in a favourites position but there is a long way to go.
20 is the magic number. England, Wales and Scotland together could count for 9, Italy three more, Georgia and Romania 2 more and Europe as a region 2 more again. So 16 from Europe are up for grabs but we will have to go further. The North American Region has two, the USA and Canada one each.
The other 19 are split between the Southern Hemisphere and Africa as a Region. If they vote as a bloc in favour of their own in South Africa, then either Ireland or France will be eliminated in the first round. Whether having one European bid, with the greater riches and opportunity that would entail would be enough to swing votes back is anybody’s guess.
Tomorrow is important, the next six weeks are critical. This is Ireland at it’s best as Brioan O’Driscoll signs off this video backing the bid.
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Image Credits Inpho Billy Stickland