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Would Ireland be capable of hosting the Rugby World Cup?

Dublin half marathon last weekend hardly a major sporting event yet problems emerged

Minister for Sport Shane Ross is July made the crazy suggestion that Ireland should bid for the Olympics, should its hosting of the 2023 Rugby World Cup prove successful. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

With the possible exception of the Dublin football team it seems nothing divides opinion in this country right now more than our staging of major sporting events. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t, the latest demonstration of which comes with our celebrity-blessed bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Because for all the pomp of Monday’s final presentation to the Rugby World Council in London, it wasn’t long before the begrudging set in. Even before the decision is made on November 15th. What about the health of our nation? Or the roofs over our heads?

IRFU chief executive Philip Browne may have made some fanciful promises about our suitably to host what would unquestionably be the biggest sporting event ever staged here (a two-hour drive from Dublin to Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney? Or Celtic Park for that matter?), but central to this debate is whether or not the Government should be coughing up the tournament fee of about €135 million.

 It’s not just the fact there’s no guarantee the Rugby World Cup will turn a profit: New Zealand made an initial loss of €19 million on hosting the 2011 tournament, this at least partly offset by the estimated €1.1 billion it was eventually worth to the New Zealand economy (whatever way that works). The 2015 tournament earned the England Rugby Football union a tidy €17 million. 

Government funding

It is estimated the 2023 Rugby World Cup could bring in over €800 million to the Irish economy – a decent chunk of which will presumably go to the pub and off-licence trade. Still, the problem with the upfront €135 million in Government funding is that it dwarfs the current commitment to social housing or mental health or other matters of national importance.

Also worrying is the Government’s exact motivation here: speaking about the bid to an Oireachtas committee in July, Minister for Sport Shane Ross made the crazy suggestion of bidding for the Olympics, should Ireland’s hosting of the 2023 Rugby World Cup prove successful.

“We’re now thinking in these terms and it’s very, very exciting,” said Ross. “Let’s think about the Olympics. I remember Gay Mitchell suggesting some years ago (1992, to be exact), and he was laughed to scorn, now it’s a real, realistic prospect. If we build up these stadiums and we are a credible bidder, which we obviously are if we win this bid, I think the sky’s the limit.”

That simply revived the famous words of Pat Hickey, the former president of the Olympic Council Ireland, who at the time of Mitchell’s suggestion reckoned “we couldn’t even build the jacks” when it came to hosting the Olympics. Not a whole lot has changed since then, and if Ross somehow views our hosting of major sporting events as way of earning political brownie points we should all be worried.

Somehow mixed into this debate were the problems with staging a half marathon in Dublin last Saturday morning, hardly a major sporting event by global standards, yet which resulted in severe traffic congestion and a delayed start time of 45 minutes.

Many race entrants – some who made it to the start, others who didn’t – expressed their annoyance afterwards (including to this newspaper), citing a lack of proper organisation and traffic infrastructure. Would the Rugby World Cup be any better?

The event was staged at Newbridge House in Donabate, in north Co Dublin, the last of the three-race countdown series to the Dublin Marathon on October 29th; since 2002, the Dublin half marathon had been staged in the Phoenix Park, but this year it was agreed would be staged by Fingal County Council for no other reason than to accommodate more runners while continuing to offer the best possible value for the €20 race entry fee.

Annoyed

And no one is more annoyed at the way things worked out than race director Jim Aughney, who for almost 20 years now how guided the Dublin Marathon and subsequent race series through thick and thin – like the rest of his organising team on a mostly voluntary basis, with precious little support from the Government.

The whole purpose of the three-race countdown series was to help revive the Dublin Marathon at a time when the country was on the verge of a boom but running was in recession. In 2002, the half-marathon had a few hundred entries; last year, it reached 8,000, the maximum allowed in the Phoenix Park, so to grow it again Aughney and his team felt obliged to help meet the demand.

“When we say we’re allowed ‘only’ 8,000 in the Phoenix Park, that’s after starting with a few hundred, which shows how much it’s grown,” says Aughney.

“We were selling out the event in July, and that’s without any overseas advertising. We wanted to take it up another level, respond to the demand, so we picked Newbridge House, got 9,200 entries, but unfortunately it didn’t work out.

“There were traffic issues, a crash on the Hearse Road, everything had a knock-on effect, created the perfect storm. We couldn’t get the water out on to the course because of the traffic, and another truck of Lucozade drinks arrived empty. The capacity for 9,700 cars wasn’t the problem, and we’ve commissioned an independent review of all the stakeholders, to see is there anything we missed on the day. Because there have to be lessons learnt, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

And chances are it won’t, this being the same organising team which sold out all 20,000 entries the Dublin Marathon over three months in advance, in a city which still tolerates the event more than embraces it, despite its estimated €10 million value to the economy and direct contribution to the health of our nation.