Like all secret ballots, following the conclusion of frenetic behind-the-scenes lobbying, today's long-awaited vote by members of the World Rugby Council in Kensington's Royal Garden Hotel to decide the hosts for the 2023 Rugby World Cup is heading towards a dramatic and unpredictable finale.
South Africa, who were the recommended hosts in the Evaluation Report commissioned by the board of the Rugby World Cup and published a fortnight ago, could be described as nervous favourites, with France the dark horses and Ireland the outsiders but not without hope.
South Africa have every reason to be favourites, having won the recommendation, and have every reason to be nervous, having lost out with three bids since hosting the tournament in 1995. The bookies odds have fluctuated wildly in recent weeks, and though South African remain favourites at 2/9 with Paddy Powers, the indications are that they could fall short on the first ballot of the simple majority of 20 votes required to win the bidding rights, in which case they could well be overtaken in the second ballot by whichever of France or Ireland finish second on the first count.
All three bidding teams, up to ten people each, were already assembling in London over the last day or two, as were World Council members, which not surprisingly has prompted some intense lobbying. Many were seemingly still making up their minds as of last night.
There will be a full World Rugby Council meeting this morning in the Royal Garden Hotel, with the last item on the agenda being the vote on the hosting of the 2023 World Cup. If no bid reaches 20 votes on the first count, the third bidding team will be eliminated and a second count taken.
There are a few caveats here which are worth noting. In the event of South Africa finishing joint second, the other country will be eliminated as the recommendation is a tie-breaker in that scenario. If France and Ireland finish joint second, the World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont can order a re-vote and if the count was repeated he would have to give his casting vote.
In the event of all bids finish with 13 votes, even after a recount, then South Africa would advance to the second round by dint of them having won the recommendation, with Beaumont’s casting vote to eliminate either France or Ireland.
Given there are 39 votes at stake, in the even more unlikely event of a tie after the second round Beaumont would assuredly order a recount rather than give his casting vote.
The votes will be counted by an independent auditor, and the members of the World Council will then go downstairs to another room where the three bidding teams will have been waiting, before the verdict, until this point unknown even to council members, is announced to the general assembly at 1pm.
A live television feed will be broadcast into the media centre in an adjoining room, while the decision will be streamed live on worldrugby.org. World Rugby will then host a media conference immediately after the decision, followed by the host union and other candidate unions.
The Irish team will consist of Dick Spring, the Chairman of the Ireland 2023 Oversight Board; Philip Browne, IRFU chief executive; Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland's bid ambassador; David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service; Shane Ross TD, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport; Kevin Potts, the IRFU COO and 2023 bid director; Philip Orr, IRFU president; Brendan Griffin, Minister of State at the Department Sport, and Ireland's two World Council members, Pat Whelan and John O'Driscoll.
The British prime minister having backed Ireland’s bid, and the UK Government having notified the English, Scottish and Welsh Unions that they are backing a bid which includes their fellow UK citizens in Northern Ireland, it is expected that England will duly vote for the Irish bid.
It is also probable that the USA and Canadian Unions, along with the North federation, will do likewise. For Ireland to have a fighting chance, it is virtually imperative that their fellow Celts from Wales and Scotland side with the Irish bid. This could take them to around 13 votes, with the possibility of more to come.
Yet word from France is that they are quite bullish about acquiring the three votes apiece from Scotland and Italy, despite the latter federation owing a sizeable debt to the IRFU for their continued presence in the Pro14.
Another floating voter whom the Irish bid might have been reasonably optimistic of acquiring (and still might well do) is that of the Georgian Rugby Union, given a strong relationship over the last five or six seasons which has seen Ireland regularly competing in the Tbilisi Cup and hosting Georgia at the Aviva Stadium.
But the Georgian RU has recently acquired a new sponsor, none other than Bernard Laporte’s close associate and the billionaire owner of Montpellier, Mourad Altrad. The French are also, apparently, optimistic of obtaining the votes from Asia, Romania and, more surprisingly, Africa’s two votes.
This would leave South African with a solid block of votes from the southern hemisphere, but still short of the 20 required, and leaving them vulnerable on the second count.
HOW THE FIRST COUNT OF VOTES MIGHT PAN OUT:
New Zealand (3 votes)
Australia (3 votes)
Argentina (3 votes)
Oceania (2 votes)
South America (2 votes)
Japan (2 votes)
Possible total: 15
Scotland (3 votes)
Italy (3 votes)
Africa (2 votes)
Europe (2 votes)
Asia (2 votes)
Georgia (1 vote)
Romania (1 vote).
Possible total: 14.
England (3 votes)
Wales (3 votes)
North America (2 votes)
Canada (1 vote)
USA (1 vote)
Possible total: 10.