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Friday 20 September 2019

Anatomy of a broken dream: how our World Cup bid sold us short

South Africa has a junk status credit rating but equalled us on finance, writes Wayne O'Connor

HOPES DASHED: Bid Oversight Board chairman Dick Spring, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll make final preparations for the ultimately unsuccessful Rugby World Cup bid presentation to World Rugby in London
HOPES DASHED: Bid Oversight Board chairman Dick Spring, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll make final preparations for the ultimately unsuccessful Rugby World Cup bid presentation to World Rugby in London
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

Resplendent six weeks ago in matching green ties and smart tailored suits, the team presenting Ireland's bid to host the Rugby World Cup appeared to have its ducks in a row when they arrived in London. Bob Geldof, Bono and Liam Neeson were cast in a variety of roles to add pizzazz to the formalities. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Brian O'Driscoll and Co showed video images of great Irish successes. They quoted Yeats but, it seems, their efforts were in vain.

"Ireland," the bid team said, "is ready for the world." Unfortunately, world rugby's governing body thinks Ireland is not as ready as the competing bids from France and South Africa.

France has been a key target of Isil terrorism but is considered by World Rugby to be just as secure a host as Ireland. South Africa is riddled with crime and its economy is in tatters. Last April, South Africa's credit rating was downgraded to 'junk status' by two leading financial agencies. Yet it is considered just as secure a World Cup venue as Ireland.

The team presenting Ireland's case as the best place to host a World Cup was led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar because he felt it was "a national priority". When they made their presentation to World Rugby in September, he said they represented the hopes and aspirations of the entire island. It would be a huge money-spinner, with estimates suggesting the tournament would provide a €1.5bn boost to the economy.

"Its success will be our total focus and will carry the support of Ireland's 70m strong diaspora," Varadkar said of the rugby-themed sequel to The Gathering.

Irish towns would adopt a second nation, as per the 2003 Special Olympics, and support it throughout the tournament. It would unite factions on both sides of the border to fill our parochial stadiums with international talent and a new Italia 90- esque sense of euphoria. There was no doubt this World Cup bid was important, so news last week that Ireland is the least favoured candidate came as a crushing blow to all those involved.

Last Tuesday, World Rugby reported that we have "a good understanding of what is required to deliver a successful Rugby World Cup". However, it does not think our understanding is good enough to be the ideal candidate.

World Rugby tasked a review group to analyse the submissions from the would-be hosts. Using a pre-defined scoring system to assess different areas of each bid, it made recommendations to the governing body's directors. The resulting independent report states we do not have the stadia, experience or towns and cities to host the event. It says coming here would be a risk.

Stadia, Infrastructure and Technology: There is a chicken-and-egg scenario about our provision of stadia and infrastructure. The Government has guaranteed they will be built, upgraded or readied in time. The green light will be issued and money released in the event Ireland is awarded hosting rights.

South Africa scored full marks for meeting minimum venue standards. Ireland only secured 62.5pc of the marks available here. Former rugby legend Hugo MacNeill, a member of the board overseeing Ireland's 2023 bid, told the Sunday Independent there were doubts the South Africans will put bums on seats because of poor attendances at games recently. He said that would not be an issue in Ireland.

"Pretty much all of the gap in marks between us and South Africa can be explained by stadia and our previous hosting experience," explains MacNeill, now a managing director of Goldman Sachs in Ireland.

"We would have a very clear plan of how we would have filled them. That is what is most important to the tournament because that is where the atmosphere will be generated, so we were surprised to have such a gap in that regard."

It was planned that issues such as a lack of wifi and technology at some of the smaller stadiums would be ironed out over the course of the next six years. Worryingly, it seems World Rugby is not convinced.

"If you can demonstrate that you have got the capability and ability to deliver the required bandwidth and whatever else is needed, that is taken into consideration," a source with knowledge of the bids told the Sunday Independent last week.

World Rugby fears the amount of technological work needed to bring Ireland in line with the rival bids represents a significant risk. This was reflected in Ireland's score.

It only secured half the marks available for proving technological requirements would be met. It was noted that Ireland is a hub for some of the world's largest tech companies and that some of these expressed an interest in getting involved in the Rugby World Cup. Letters from some of these companies supplemented the bid document submitted to World Rugby earlier this year. However, Ireland still lost potential marks because it did not have a technology partner with a proven track record of delivering solutions to large sporting events. Telecommunications giant Orange underpinned the French bid, while the South Africans are also backed by an ICT firm with experience working in conjunction with the Tour de France.

Transport and Accommodation: Transport also let Ireland down. This is surprising considering the journey times between some of the venues in France and South Africa. Ireland's size and the proximity of venues to each other should have been a greater advantage, with the shorter distances making for less travelling between games for teams and supporters.

In South Africa, flight times between host cities can be in excess of two hours, inter-city trains are not common and road journeys generally take between five and 10 hours.

France would utilise trains much better but many Irish football supporters encountered long drives during last year's Euro 2016 football championship, especially either side of the win against Italy. Any supporter who drove between Ireland's four games at the championship would have racked up more than 2,000km on the road.

Even with Brexit in mind, the Irish bid reassured World Rugby that cross-border travel would be seamless and there would be little or no need for air travel. Despite this, the report notes seven airports on the island but no timings were provided for domestic flights. It is a minor detail but elite-level sport is often defined by small margins. A reliance on road transfers and public transport infrastructure appears to have counted against us.

Accommodation also cropped up as an issue because some Irish venues would rely on nearby towns and cities for capacity. South Africa and France were able to use experiences of hosting football tournaments to demonstrate their capabilities to house travelling teams and supporters. We have no comparable experience.

The perceived transport inefficiencies aligned with the points lost for technological shortcomings cost Ireland almost two percentage points against the South Africa bid. Considering South Africa's overall tally came in at 78.97pc, compared to Ireland's 72.25pc, these marks would have gone some way towards earning World Rugby's recommendation.

Finance: Ireland came closer to matching its rivals by proving it could hold a financially viable World Cup. Proof money does talk.

France's bid was considered the most lucrative but Ireland performed well in guaranteeing commercial programmes would be prioritised. We also set out the best overall budget for the tournament. However, we still only ranked level for viability with South Africa because it guaranteed a £160m (€180m) tournament fee payable to Rugby World Cup Ltd, the organising company owned by World Rugby. Ireland's bid is £120m, the minimum required amount. Insiders have questioned the South African fee, given the country's 'junk status' credit rating and the value of the South African rand.

World Rugby said it is confident each country can meet the promised payments. "The relevant guarantees confirmed within the host candidate submissions are legally-binding and enforceable in line with the stipulations of the process," a spokesman said.

Security and Risk: Ireland's bid team may rightly feel aggrieved about some of the findings in the report. The three candidates were given the same score for their individual security plans. This stood out to those who were working behind the scenes on the bid.

"We were amazed, really surprised, to be evaluated the same as South Africa on security," said MacNeill.

Out of a possible score of 15, Ireland, France and South Africa each tallied 9.38 points for demonstrating a robust and comprehensive security plan with evidence the bidders could cope with the demands of staging the World Cup.

A global index by the Institute for Economics and Peace ranks Ireland as the 10th safest country in the world. France is ranked 51st because of the threat of terrorism in recent years. South Africa is ranked at 123rd out of 163 countries because of major concerns about crime, homicide and access to weapons. Just last week Ernie Els, one of the country's top golfers, appealed for people outside of South Africa to take notice of a spate of farm attacks there. "People are being murdered every day," he said. Yet World Rugby still does not see Ireland as a safer pair of hands.

This is despite its report acknowledging the terror threat in France was concerning. It also states: "Crime against the individual is historically the major risk factor for South Africa." So why are we seen as a country that is as safe, or as dangerous, to visit?

World Rugby's report reads: "South Africa and France provided a comprehensive overview of a range of security threats and risks with proposed strategies for tackling each. Ireland's bid focused primarily on the management of the threat of international terrorism."

It continues, stating that we did not provide enough detail. The safest country competing to stage the event had sold itself short. "The bid description of risks is limited and does not cover the full range of risks associated with safety and security of the tournament and therefore does not attract additional marks in the scoring."

France displayed management strategies to cope with a range of risks including terrorism, fires, natural disasters, nuclear disasters, cybercrime and more.

South Africa also included adverse weather and medical emergencies in its list of risks that will be assessed prior to the tournament.

The Irish bid was too narrow with the unlikely risks it outlined.

"There is reference to the cross-border policing arrangements to tackle disruption of criminal activity and effective emergency planning," the report states. "There is no consideration or mention of other risks beyond the threat of terrorism."

Again, the Irish team did not quite go far enough.

Voting: It is clear that we will need more than well-dressed ambassadors in matching ties if we are to pull in the required votes from nations before they vote for their preferred candidate in a secret ballot on November 15.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew has already indicated the Kiwis will follow the World Rugby recommendation and vote for South Africa.

"From a New Zealand point of view, our board made a decision early on that if the process was seen to have worked well and been done fairly and professionally then it would be very hard not to vote the way of the recommendation," he said.

"While the scores are relatively close, there was a clear margin. South Africa is the best candidate so we'll be guided by the recommendation and vote accordingly."

Irish hopes now depend on others ignoring World Rugby's recommendation.

Sunday Independent

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