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IRFU question South Africa RWC bid in letter to World Rugby

Letter, which has been seen by The Irish Times, shows misgivings on evaluation report

IRFU chief executive Philip Browne at the 2023 Rugby World Cup bid presentation at the Royal Garden Hotel, London in September. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The war of words between the Ireland 2023 Oversight Board, the IRFU and World Rugby continues to escalate on a daily basis, with the union’s chief executive Philip Browne maintaining the rapid fire tit-for-tat in a letter addressed to his World Rugby counterpart Brett Gosper which The Irish Times has seen.

The correspondence from Browne followed on from Gosper’s response to a letter from the Oversight Board chairman Dick Spring to all council members of World Rugby on Monday. The World Rugby Council members will vote on the three bids put forward by Ireland, South Africa and France, in London next Wednesday, when a simple majority of 20 votes will be required to earn the rights to host the 2023 tournament.

The IRFU is evidently concerned that the deciding vote is not a fait accompli due to the recommendation for the South African bid in last week’s vexed evaluation report conducted by Rugby World Cup Limited.

To that end, the IRFU have said that it is “critically important that all Council members are reminded that they may vote for any of the three bids and all bidders have been judged capable of hosting an excellent Rugby World Cup in 2023.” In other words, the union states, a vote for Ireland would not constitute a vote against the process, rather it would be in full keeping with the voting process approved by World Rugby Council.

Misgivings

The bulk of the letter, however, focuses on the IRFU’s ongoing misgivings about the report, and its particular scrutiny on the South African bid, with nine specific queries under four different headings.

Hence, the content and tone of this latest missive from the IRFU will certainly add a feisty backdrop to Saturday’s meeting between the two countries, and with any future bids in mind, can only sour Ireland’s off-field relations not only with the South African Rugby Union but with World Rugby as well. While the letter references South Africa bid no fewer than eight times, it doesn’t once mention France.

In a lengthy list of queries, three of these come under the first heading, namely ‘Stadia’, and specifically the size and variety of venues. Noting the “very clear examples in recent times of starkly empty stadia in South Africa for significant fixtures”, the letter asks: “What specific consideration was given as to how South Africa will achieve full stadia?”

The IRFU also asks why “only 4% of overall scoring is attributed to ticketing” and why all three bids have been scored the same “despite significant risks being identified with two bids, and these risks appearing to remain despite the mitigation plans offered?”

Under the second heading of ‘Security”, and especially “the delicate question of personal security”, the letter contains two queries. Allowing for proposed security measures, “was an independently recognised, world class security organisation used to review the underlying security situation within each bidding country – including personal safety as was the case with the 2015 and 2019 evaluation process, and if not, why not?”

Or, if it was, the letter asks: “can you please share this assessment?”

Under the third heading, ‘Major event hosting experience’, the letter expresses surprise at the “limited reference to the 2022 Durban Commonwealth Games” in the report, and quotes some of the damning verdict from the Commonwealth Games Federation in stripping South Africa of the hosting rights for those games.

Three more queries follow, asking if RWCL (Rugby World Cup Limited) carried out full due diligence on this episode, if they discussed this with the CG Federation and whether they’d raised it with the South African Government.

Credit rating

Under the fourth heading of ‘Financial, commercial and commitments’, the Union is “concerned regarding the evaluation of financial commitments and guarantees, given South Africa’s current sovereign credit rating as categorised by Standard & Poor’s, is BB+, which is defined as speculative grade (sometimes referred to as ‘junk’).” The letter notes that World Rugby employed Barclays to conduct an independent sovereign risk assessment of each bid for the 2015 and 2019 World Cups.

“Can RWCL confirm whether a similar rigorous assessment has been conducted for the 2023 process on each bid and if so can you please share this assessment?”

The “mechanical nature of the technical review”, claims the letter, did not properly weigh these issues and so “Ireland’s scoring suffered unreasonably.”

In asking that RWCL fully address these matters, the Union vow they will have “a more extensive list of queries with the evaluation report” by close of business on Wednesday. In conclusion, the IRFU would continue to play their role “in a positive and respectful manner up until voting day” as it was their duty to the people of Ireland, the evaluation process, the World Cup and rugby throughout the world.

“We look forward to your responses to the queries above.”

In all likelihood, World Rugby are almost certainly going to dig their heels in and stand resolutely behind the Evaluation Report, citing for example that the stripped Durban Commonwealth Games did not have the kind of legally-binding agreements which they have in place.

In response, World Rugby informed The Irish Times that it “understands the natural emotion and disappointment as a reaction when publishing a recommendation. It would be inappropriate to comment on specifics while the host selection process is ongoing. As we have said before, the process and the resulting report and recommendation has been transparent, comprehensive and the detailed review has been independently evaluated.”