When the votes had been cast and the dust had settled, the bitter reality for the Irish delegation as they headed to Heathrow Airport from yesterday's World Rugby Council meeting which chose France to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup is that Ireland would assuredly have succeeded had Scotland and Wales supported the Irish bid.
That left a very sour taste in their mouths.
France topped the first count with 18 votes, followed by South Africa on 13 and Ireland on eight, which led to Ireland being eliminated, before France won the second count 24-15 and with it the right to host the 2023 tournament.
Had Scotland and Wales sided with Ireland, they would have had 14 first-round votes, with France on 15 and South Africa on 10 votes and thereby eliminated. Members of the Irish delegation are convinced that the three votes apiece from New Zealand, whose government and union had been very supportive of the Irish bid until South Africa won the recommendation, and Australia would then have transferred from South Africa to Ireland. That alone would have taken them to the winning quota of 20 votes.
In fact, even if Wales had voted for Ireland, that would have pushed them to 11, with South Africa on 10, and so they would have been eliminated. Ireland would probably have picked up another nine votes on the second count from NZ, Australia and Argentina.
Although it was a secret ballot, it is commonly assumed that Scotland’s three votes supported the French bid, on the promise that it would generate bigger profits for World Rugby, and Wales’s three votes backed the South African bid.
They apparently felt duty bound to adhere to the recommendation in favour of South Africa arising from the Evaluation Report commissioned by the board of the Rugby World Cup because the WRU chairman, Gareth Davies, a former Welsh and Lions outhalf, is chairman of the board of World Rugby. He is also a member of the World Rugby Council, its Executive Committee, as well as being a director of Rugby World Cup Limited, Six Nations Rugby Limited and the British Lions Designated Activity Company and is on the board of EPCR.
A man of many hats. Too many, some might think.
Speaking to Irish journalists outside the adjoining rooms which had hosted both the vote on the 2023 Rugby World Cup and ensuing press conferences, the IRFU chief executive Philip Browne could scarcely conceal his or the Irish delegation's acute disappointment with their Celtic neighbours.
“It’s very disappointing. It was particularly disappointing that Scotland and Wales didn’t support their nearest neighbours. We’re partners in the Pro14, you would have thought they’d at least support us, but as I said in the press conference, Scotland went for the money and Wales went out of solidarity with Gareth Davies. England supported us and we have to thank England for that.”
That England’s three votes went with the Irish bid merely reinforced parallels with 1972, when Scotland and Wales cited the Troubles in refusing to travel to Dublin for Five Nations games after Ireland had won its opening two matches away to England and France. By contrast, England travelled to Dublin a year later, at the height of the Troubles, and received a standing ovation when their captain John Pullin led the team out on to the pitch.
It will be interesting to see if the French have promised any favours for the Scottish and Welsh unions, and how the Scottish and Welsh rugby publics react to the news that their unions backed bids from France and South Africa rather than their fellow Celts and UK citizens, for reasons of money and politics it would seem, despite support also from the UK government for the Irish bid.
It will also make future meetings of the Pro14 board of directors interesting, and with this in mind the Irish delegation were bitterly disappointed that the Italian council members supported the French bid. The Irish Times has learned that the Italians had pledged their support for Ireland's bid until last Saturday, when notifying the IRFU that they would instead be voting for France.
This felt like more of a betrayal given the IRFU’s steadfast support has been crucial in maintaining two Italian teams in the Pro14 especially, when the Welsh and Scots were less inclined to do so, and to a lesser extent in the Six Nations.
Browne admitted to being “very disappointed” not to obtain the Italians’ three votes, and added: “We put ourselves out and spent a lot of political capital in supporting Italy for all the right reasons as we believe the professional game in Italy needs to be supported. Unfortunately our colleagues in Scotland and Wales sometimes take a different view so we have had to defend the Italian position. But listen we have to sit down and work it all out.”
It is also assumed that the two votes of North American regional association, along with the vote apiece of the USA and Canadian unions supported Ireland, whose other vote is unclear. The most common explanation is that one of the other regional associations split its two votes, perhaps Oceania or even Asia, between Ireland and South Africa.
In addition to the Scots and Italy, France seemingly had the support of Asia, South America, Europe, Africa and Japan, all two votes each, as well as Romania and Georgia. Twelve of South Africa’s 13 votes are accounted for by the southern hemisphere block of New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, as well as Wales, and one other.
The Evaluation Report which recommended South Africa, and placed Ireland in third, was a very damaging blow to the Irish bid, and in this Browne and the rest of Ireland 2023 Oversight Board felt the goalposts had been shifted given the weighting criteria applied in the evaluation.
“It certainly would have been a lot more instructive than the criteria that we were given,” said Browne, “which was the five headline criteria and we didn’t know what the make up or the detail criteria below those. So, that in itself was problematic for us.”
Ultimately though, only one third of the council votes backed the recommendation, and France won on the back of frenzied lobbying and promises of financial largesse.
“There’s no politics like sporting politics,” said Browne with a chuckle, who added, perhaps partly with tongue-in-cheek, “I think France did an incredible job in the last two weeks and fair play to them. They’ll run a great tournament, there’s no doubt about it.”
This, he admitted, had been his most disappointing day in nearly two decades working with the IRFU, most of them as chief executive.
“I spent six years on this. I did a desk top study in January 2012 after I came back from the New Zealand World Cup. It’s got to be disappointing but sport is full of highs and lows, you have got to dust yourself down, get back up on the horse and off you go.”