Gordon D’Arcy: Tough day on Lansdowne Road after RWC hammer blow

Seems we competed on emotional level knowing we didn’t stand a chance on stadiums or profit

Alan Gilpin, the head of the Rugby World Cup, explains the review process behind endorsing a bid to host the tournament. Video: World Rugby

 

Hindsight tells us the Irish bid for the World Cup was guilty of confirmation bias.

Tuesday’s independently commissioned World Rugby report on the 2023 tournament leaves our little island open to criticism, but before we flare up the tiki-torches let’s remember this was the IRFU’s first ever World Cup bid. It need not be its last.

Ireland seeking to host a global sporting event is great business for everyone. Such whales are never easy to reel in. Certainly not on the first attempt. We came third – well, that’s what a report recommends pre-vote -–because South Africa and France have experience. They have superior stadiums. They promise more profit. They have superior transport systems. They are enormous sporting nations. And they are technologically superior. That last one should hurt the most. We suspected but didn’t know for sure.

France and Bernard Laporte probably feel worse than Philip Browne and the IRFU. Their bid promises more money and is built on a recent, successful track record.

Even after the report backs South Africa, it still feels like a political decision. Good for the game, not necessarily the World Cup.

Rugby as a global entity cannot have the Springboks losing 57-0 to New Zealand. A rugby nation – and as the 2010 World Cup proved it is also a football nation – South Africa desperately need an injection of, well, rugby. Far too many Springboks in Europe these days.

Ireland’s bid comes with too many uncertainties, too many risks. 2023 cannot be a developmental World Cup. That’s for certain. Japan 2019 is causing increasing levels of stress, and World Rugby has made no secret of the hassle caused by its flagship tournament existing in the shadow of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Problems

Plain and simple, it wants to avoid repeating the same problems with the 2023 tournament preceding Paris 2024. South Africa’s shiny soccer stadiums solve this.

There is still D-day, November 15th. Not a single vote has been cast. The beauty of a private ballot is somebody always throws somebody else under the bus knowing they’ll get away with it.

Now, that probably favours France, not us, as the Irish bid has been picked apart on almost every point.

Ireland’s sustainability/legacy plan was questioned. The whole Irish-led idea of opening the US market was largely dismissed. The report also highlights the IRFU’s “little focus on working in partnership with Rugby Europe or any of the other regional associations”. That reads like a hammer blow to the bid. An independently commissioned hammer blow. Tough Tuesday on Lansdowne Road.

The report does state we are capable of hosting a World Cup. Just not to the standard they know France and especially South Africa would deliver.

The success of Euro 2016 and World Cup 2010 hurt us the most.

Stadiums, modern stadia. There has to be a questions asked about the retention of terraces in the Irish bid (to ensure the newly designed Páirc Uí Chaoimh could host a knockout game) – a fact that merely enhanced the importance of modern stadiums in Marseilles, Durban, Nice, Pretoria et al.

The optics, literally, make Ireland appear as the weakest bid.

Romantic level

It seems like we competed on an emotional, even romantic level knowing we didn’t stand a chance on stadiums (30 per cent of the report’s criteria) or the bottom line (35 per cent).

The plan backfired because there is no way of showing the world how great a tournament we would put on, how there would be a buy-in from every small town, because foreigners cannot possibly understand the cultural aspect of the GAA.

Non-Irish people don’t know what those three letters truly mean. Hurling pops up on social media and people (in far flung places like England) fall over themselves to laud the ferocity of it. Then they go back to the Premier League or whatever. They can’t see the value because they don’t live it. The Rugby World Cup bid didn’t get that message across. This is a global event. No room for inside-out thinking in our strategy.

The link between governments, the IRFU and the GAA is a massive deal. Only to us. We live it. I’m a Wexford man first. I have memories about Martin Storey and ‘96 that mean nothing to people who are not Irish.

It was an enormous moment for my family to see me play rugby at Croke Park in 2007. It meant so much to so many Irish people. We have that forever. It’s ours. We trashed the same English side that reached a World Cup final six months later. To them it was just another test match in Dublin.

Our emotional energy – what makes us Irish, what all but guarantees a great tournament on this island – does not transfer to a technical review group.

Up to scratch

Especially when the wifi doesn’t work in most of the stadiums those writing the report visited. Facts matter: Only two of the eight stadiums were up to scratch. They all look a little shoddy when put besides the modern, bowl-shaped stadiums of France and South Africa.

Horse-shoe grounds look unfinished to people not of Ireland. The Hill 16 historical lesson goes in one ear and out the other. World Rugby wants all-seater stadiums not atmospheric terraces.

The rules were clear.

Technological short-comings are glaring and damning. But they can be helpful, and progressive if we pay heed with a view to failing better in four years’ time.

Considering France and South Africa are deemed tournament-ready, the report states six of the eight Irish venues “require significant levels of upgrade and/or installation of technology and telecoms infrastructure” and “capacity needs to be increased at all venues to meet the required standard”. It tell us none of the stadiums were ready.

I doubt the French or South African stadiums are tournament ready. Point is they have been, so can be again.

The report added: “The amount of upgrade work required introduces complexity and therefore a significant risk factor that is not inherent in the other two bids.”

The “significant risk factor” in major sporting arenas is nothing compared to ongoing broadband issues in rural Ireland. We can now stick a pin on our national infrastructural problems and declare: this is damaging our reputation globally.

I’m not using that as a stick to beat the IRFU or the Government. It is a useful dose of reality.

Openness

We came at this transparent process – besides the secret ballot – with an openness that is of little use in the fortnight of back-room deals that now need doing.

We must somehow convince other rugby nations that this report is not worth the paper it’s printed on.

Maybe we were naive. How can we not be? This is global politics conveyed through the prism of sport. This was our first pitch in the big leagues. Presuming the bronze medal is all we get on November 15th, there are many immediate lessons to prepare us for a 2027 bid.

Ireland can host a World Cup. It will be a smaller tournament with less airplane and train journeys. No terraces either.

I’m optimistic by nature. There is still a vote so there is still a chance. The IRFU probably need to make a lot of promises!

As much as highlighting our short comings, the report damages the Irish bid by offering a solution to uncertain voting nations. It also gives some of our supporters very good reason to change their mind.

No, not a good day on Lansdowne Road.

Still, I write with some degree of confidence that the bid was as good as it could be. That’s where we are at on the stadium/technology front right now.

Almost ready. That was never going to be enough when going up against proven bidders.

Now we can learn. We can dig into the strengths of France and South Africa, see how we expand our lenses when it comes to hosting a major tournament.

Real pressure

This report puts real pressure on South Africa to deliver. World Rugby has ongoing issues with the readiness of Japan 2019. Wonder how these South African stadiums, all 40,000-plus all-seaters, will be filled come 2023?

The IRFU does need to undergo a period of reflection now. Its relationships with fellow rugby nations are about to be put to the ultimate test.

Maybe all the confirmation bias – the promise of improvements rather than actually having them in place, the unified front offered up by North and South, the GAA supporting rugby – will not be what we rely on come the 2027 bid. They can be foundations to build on.

The real shame would be to bury our head in the sand.

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