If their press conferences at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington were any yardstick whatsoever, the Irish bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup was considerably more thorough, detailed and impressive than its rivals from France and South Africa when they each made their presentations to the full World Rugby Council on Monday morning.
The Irish top table considerably outnumbered its counterparts as well, and as was both flagged in advance in contrast to France and South Africa, was given added weight by the presence of An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.
Mr Varadkar expressed his delight at being present, saying: “I wouldn’t have missed today for anything. It was six years ago when I was Minister for Sport that the IRFU first came to the Government and suggested that we put in a bid for the Rugby World Cup. It’s great to be at this point. I just hope that we get good news in a few weeks’ time.
“This will be without doubt the biggest sporting event that Ireland will ever host if we are successful in winning the tournament. It’s fully backed by Government, both in Ireland and in Northern Ireland. We have the infrastructure, the stadiums, the visitor accommodation, key facilities and access. The business case adds up for World Rugby, but also for the Irish economy and taxpayer.
“It is a North-South joint bid which is really historic,” he added while also highlighting the bid’s intention to reach out to the diaspora. “So delighted to be here and fingers crossed.”
Mr Varadkar's presence also highlights how the Irish governments, north and south of the border, have vowed not only to underwrite the tournament fee and profits from tournament to World Rugby, but to actually sign off the cheques. One of the key benefits of this is the degree to which it would enable the tournament organisers to set competitive ticket pricing. These prices, according to the IRFU chief executive Philip Browne, could start as low as €15 for a ticket.
“As the process has gone on we have become more and more confident of the credibility of our financial package that we have put together,” said Browne. “Obviously this tournament means everything to World Rugby as it is their only revenue source for a four-year period, and they also wanted no risk. So working with the governments North and South we have put together a financial package which - I can’t go into the details - but what I can say is that we have provided any guarantee that has been required and which is preferred by Rugby World Cup.
“The Irish government is going to pay the tournament fee of £120m. That’s really important as it is effectively a tournament fee paid directly from the Irish government to Rugby World Cup. That takes huge pressure off the tournament budget itself.
“That allows us to offer tickets at prices as low as €15. We are expecting 450,000 visiting fans to come and visit Ireland and we will have to provide them with access to tickets at affordable prices. It also allows us to concentrate on delivering a real world-class event.
“The other elements of the financial package are the tournament guarantee. So, if no tickets were sold at all, the tournament still has to go ahead. So the Irish government has actually underwritten the entire cost of the tournament.
“The third element is the commercial package which is confidential but the government has equally underwritten a significant proportion of that. That package is divided into two: one is the secondary sponsorships and then the corporate hospitality and travel and accommodation packages.
“The corporate packages have met with an incredible response from the Irish community at home and abroad. Ireland is a major hub for multinational foreign investment. There is an incredible Irish-American diaspora, with CEOs all wanting to be involved. Ireland is a European hub for technology industry, a world leading centre for aircraft industry, the pharmaceutical industry and the biomedical industry. All these companies want to be involved.
“That all goes back to the issue of certainty. Rugby World Cup wanted certainty with no risk to their revenue streams. So the entire financial package is money in the bank. You could effectively bank that today.”
Sitting alongside An Taoiseach and Browne were 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 and Dick Spring, the chairman of the Ireland 2023 Oversight Board.
Also present were Kieran McLoughlin, worldwide president and CEO of The Ireland Funds, Kevin Potts, the IRFU COO and 2023 bid director; Philip Orr, IRFU president, and Niamh Briggs, Ireland's women's captain.
Briggs was the narrator of the first video shown to the assembled media which was also shown to the World Rugby Council.
“We are drummers, bangers, tin-can rattlers,” she began. “We’re a noisy bunch. The Irish make themselves heard. On the streets, in the corridors of power, on every stage, and in the most unexpected places. We are the people who dared to dream. Our ambition outgrew our geography.”
This was all said over various backdrops, of sun-kissed and green-clad Irish fans, Barack Obama saying: 'Yes we can', Liam Neeson playing Michael Collins. A key plank is how a World Cup in Ireland might reach out to the 70 million diaspora, especially the 40 million of Irish extraction in the USA.
“For every one of us at home, there are 12 of us abroad,” continued Briggs, adding: “Rugby is the script and all the world our stage.”
The video concluded with Bono addressing the crowd at this summer’s Croke Park concert to “demand that the World Cup be played on this hallowed GAA ground in 2023. That will be good. All those in favour?”
Cue the roar. “Motion passed,” says a hoarse Bono.
Spring said: "It was an absolute honour for Irish rugby to see that the Taoiseach has graced us with his presence this morning." He then introduced a second video which was part of Ireland's presentation, in which Bob Geldof read The Lake Isle of Innisfree by WB Yeats.
O’Driscoll gave a reprise of his address to the Council, which focussed on the ‘welcome’ which an Irish World Cup would give to visiting fans. “For those of you who don’t speak Irish, céad míle fáilte is a hundred thousand welcomes. We’re not happy giving you one welcome. We want to give one hundred thousand. So people can expect to be smothered with love.
“This is the biggest tournament that we’re ever likely to host. You saw what’s been done in the past with the Special Olympics and other tournaments. This is as big as it gets for us. We’re so proud of our country that we will put our best foot forward in every regard. We’re sports lovers. We’re not just rugby lovers. The GAA fans, the football fans, they’ll embrace this and make sure that they’ll adopt second teams as their own in different towns and villages. You just sense that we will do an exceptional job.
“I’d be very envious of players in Ireland in particular, getting to play in a World Cup in their own country. Besides the home support, it’s something to showcase the very best of your country, and I think we would do that with aplomb.”
As well as the emotional pitch, there was also plenty of detail in Ireland’s presentation and ensuing press conference. The effects of Brexit were also raised during their presentation to the Council, and Mr Varadkar told the media: “While there’s plenty of uncertainty about Brexit, about political arrangements and trading relationships, one thing that is certain is that the common travel area will remain in place, and Dublin wants that, Belfast wants that and Brussels does as well.”
Sterling, representing the Northern Ireland Civil Service, played down the absence of any Government representative from Stormont, pointing out that all five political parties in the North are “totally committed and united in their desire to bring the Rugby World Cup to Ireland in 2023.”
He also pointed to the track record of delivering such events, be it the Women’s Rugby World Cup this year, the Paralympics in 2013 and the Giro Italia in 2014.
Browne unleashed another barrage of figures to underline Ireland’s ability to receive an estimated 450,000 visitors during the course of the tournament. This included an investment of €600 million on rugby and GAA stadia in Ireland over the last decade. In answering questions about Ireland’s infrastructure, as in their presentation to the Council, Browne pointed out that there are 12 million visitors on an annual basis, 44 million visitors through Irish airports on an annual basis, a top class road and rail structure, all stadia being within two hours of Dublin, five international airports, five million visitors by ferry annually from continental Europe and the UK. An estimated 2.7 million ‘bed nights’ would be required during that window. “In the island of Ireland we actually have 11 million bed nights in that window.”
He also stressed how the smallness of the country, and thus lesser time travelling between venues and having many stadia being within walking distance of city centres was a positive.
The South African bid brought a strong political and historical element to its presentation, as well as Government guarantees for a record profit to World Rugby. It made much of its facilities, and its proven experience in hosting major sports events, from the Fifa World Cup in 2010, the Cricket World Cup, the African Cup of Nations.
As in their press conference, their Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa clearly had to address many concerns about security issues to the Council. Also in attendance were the Minister for Sport, Thiulas Nxesi, and the table was flanked by two former World Cup winning captains Francois Pienaar and John Smit.
Having seen bids fail three times in a row, they tugged at the heartstrings with regular references to hosting the 1995 World Cup, and invoking the memory of Nelson Mandela. Their impressive video was a collation of images from that tournament and other rugby games, along with safaris, and children playing the game.
The video featured slogans such as “Head the call. Come to the birthplace of humankind. Where it all comes together. Where rugby is number one.’ This closed with: “Ready Already.”
Having recently hosted the European Championships in football, the French also made much of their facilities, and experience of hosting major events, as well as vowing to provide the biggest financial yielded.
It is understood that the French presentation began with a vow from the president of their Federation, Bernard Laporte, that were his country to host the 2023 World Cup, it would be used in part to curb the Top 14's excessive spending on foreign players. This would in turn stem the flow of players from the southern hemisphere big four and elsewhere to the Top 14, and thus help to safeguard the competitiveness of test rugby.
As the most financially powerful league in the world, the Top 14 is also damaging the French national team, so as President of the French Federation, Laporte would have a vested interest in curbing the club’s excessiveness.
This is part carrot, part stick, for if France were not granted the rights to host the 2023 tournament, then the Top 14 would continue their spendthrift, expansionist tendencies unbridled.
Furthermore, it hardly tallies with Laporte’s close links to the Montpellier owner and Syrian-born billionaire businessman Mohed Altrad.
It is these links, including a private deal reputed to be worth €150,000, and Laporte's alleged interference over the Federation's Appeals Committee to reduce the punishment against Montpellier for improper placards by their supporters which prompted several of them to resign and for the French sports minister Laura Flessel to investigate the matter.
Ironically, although declaring her delight at being present here and with regard to the backing of the French Government in the noticeable absence of President Emmanuel Macron, that leaves a dark cloud hanging over Laporte and the French bid.
Their humorous video presentation featured Laporte himself mimicking a pre-match pep talk, but instead of a team of players, it was to a melange of restaurant chefs and staff, a dancer from the Moulin Rouge and children.
“This World Cup,” implores Laporte. “We’ve got to have it. At any price.” That seemed apt.
Alongside Laporte and Flessel were Claude Atcher, and former French player Sebastien Chabal, who was flanked by Jonah Lomu's two sons, Dhyreille and Brayley. The former was born in Marseilles when Lomu had made a comeback with Marseille-Vitrolles in 2009 in Federal 1. Ironically, Atcher was the president of the Marseilles club at the time.
Nonetheless, flying them over seemed a tad gauche.