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Gerry Thornley: When will World Rugby ditch old reliables?

If same criteria were applied to bids six years ago, New Zealand would never have won

World Rugby seem very reluctant to switch from the norm and take a chance on a bid, like they would be doing with Ireland. Photo: Inpho

Confirmation late last week from the New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew that their three votes would follow the recommendation in the Evaluation Report overseen by World Rugby’s Technical Review Group, namely to endorse South Africa’s bid, is disappointing on a number of levels.  

While the evaluation, overseen by the Sports Consultancy, is a worthy attempt at transparency, who is to say it’s fool-proof? Far from it, say the rival French and Irish bids, who have highlighted what they believe are a number of flaws in the report – the former in a 50-page report of its own to World Rugby, and the Ireland Bid Oversight Board in a letter to all members of the World Rugby Council.

This has led to a war of words between the French Federation president Bernard Laporte and World Rugby, with the former describing the report as “nonsense” and the result of “incompetence”, and the latter describing those comments as “unfounded and inaccurate”.

The report also concluded that “any of the three candidates could host a successful Rugby World Cup.” So it is that the three candidates will continue to feverishly lobby voting members of the World Rugby Council and give their take on the report, pending the Council’s vote in the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington tomorrow week. Shouldn’t Tew et al wait until then before finalising their decision?

Not that there should be a reciprocal arrangement in return for the IRFU pledging its two votes to New Zealand’s 2011 bid at the IRB Council meeting in Dublin in November 2005. But Tew and the NZRU should recall the equally grave concerns over New Zealand’s ability to host the biggest sporting event in that country’s history.

Recent experience

Put another way, if New Zealand had instead bid this time around, or the same criteria applied then, there is no way they’d have won the recommendation. Akin to Ireland, New Zealand’s stadia were not ready, and they’d had no recent experience of hosting a comparable sports event.

But the six year window gave them time to upgrade existing stadia, such as Eden Park, or develop a new one like Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. What’s more, they did this despite the tragic 2011 Christchurch Earthquake which forced the relocation of matches to other cities. And it was a brilliant World Cup. Stadiums were full and generally located in city centres in a friendly and peaceful country. That, in particular, sounds similar to what a World Cup in Ireland would be like.  

Similarly, under the area of ‘venues and host cities’, Ireland suffered for the lack of readymade stadiums and experience of hosting big tournaments.

Indeed, France’s hosting of the 2016 European Championship finals and South Africa’s of the 2010 Fifa World Cup are highlighted as key plusses.

Is World Rugby the only major sporting body that thinks like this? However dodgy Fifa’s granting of the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar, were football’s governing body to adopt a similar approach, they would never have hosted a World Cup outside Uruguay (the host of the inaugural tournament) and, similarly, the IOC would only have had Olympic Games in Greece. 

If this effectively becomes the deciding criteria, then henceforth England, France, Australia and South Africa need only apply, and perhaps Italy at a push. Or maybe Russia or Qatar?  

The letter from the Ireland 2023 Bid Oversight Board, signed by its chairman Dick Spring, has been seen by The Irish Times, and notes the widespread “shock”, not just in Ireland, about “the narrow, operational and theoretical approach adopted in the final report.”

In particular, the letter notes that Ireland scored top or joint top in 12 of the 21 scored categories, and is ranked equal with South Africa on the overall commercial/financial offer, while the criteria used in analysing the proposed venues gives no weighting to whether they will be full or not, yet South Africa’s smallest stadium is 41,538, France 33,150 and Ireland 17,000.

Football stadia

The report’s scoring favours France and South Africa’s array of large, out-of-town football stadia, yet it also states that Ireland’s stadium plan is “realistic, well-informed and achievable.”  

The Irish bid letter also expresses “amazement” that all three bids received similar scoring on “security”, and surprise that the evaluation didn’t engage specialist security advice, as it did with Jardine Lloyd Thompson for the 2015 and 2019 bids.

The Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace ranked 163 countries in its updated, annual 2017 Global Peace Index. The countries are measured in three areas, including safety and security in society (personal safety), domestic or international conflict (national security), and the degree of militarization.

Ireland stand joint tenth, alongside Japan. (New Zealand are second, behind only Iceland). France are 51st, while South Africa is ranked 123rd, just below Guinea-Bissau and above the Republic of Congo.

Steve Tew and the NZRU, along with Council members, would do well to consider all this. Indeed, after the Lions hosted the Crusaders in the 2017 Super Rugby final in Ellis Park in Johannesburg on the Saturday afternoon of August 5th, Tew explained that New Zealand teams could not host afternoon games as this would affect viewing figures and attendances, and their domestic club game.

Tew said that it is often too dangerous for fans to travel to and from matches played at night in South Africa, which is why South African teams play their Super Rugby matches mostly in the afternoon.

“One of the reasons they play [in the] day time is that it is too dangerous to play at night, and their fans simply won’t go,” said Tew.

Presumably television will dictate that some games in 2023 have to be played at night. Yet Tew has pledged New Zealand’s three votes to the South African bid.

Proof, were it needed, that the Evaluation Report is far from fool-proof.

gthornley@irishtimes.come