Saturday 19 October 2019

Making a pitch for sporting - and economic - success

The weight of the entire island of Ireland has been put behind the bid to host the Rugby World Cup, writes Shane Ross

Optimism: Ireland’s Lindsay Peat being tackled by Annaelle Deshaye of France during the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup, which took place in Ireland last month. Photo: Sportsfile
Optimism: Ireland’s Lindsay Peat being tackled by Annaelle Deshaye of France during the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup, which took place in Ireland last month. Photo: Sportsfile

Shane Ross

What has happened to Irish sport in recent years?

Indeed what has happened to Irish sport in recent weeks?

We are mixing with the mighty where we used to be mingling among the minnows.

A few years ago it all started when Irish soccer began to reach undreamt of heights.

A few months ago Ireland climbed into the top levels of Test cricket.

A few weeks ago Ireland hosted the Women's Rugby World Cup in Kingspan Stadium, Belfast.

In a few days' time, Ireland could succeed in being chosen to host the UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifying draw in December.

Tomorrow we are bidding to host the biggest prize yet: the Rugby World Cup. Are we getting a bit above ourselves or are we on the point of passing our toughest sporting test of all?

In Kensington, London, tomorrow, I will be privileged to join Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, rugby superstar Brian O'Driscoll, Northern Ireland Civil Service chief David Sterling, former rugby international Dick Spring, women's rugby captain Niamh Briggs, IRFU President Philip Orr and others in a bid to host the biggest rugby contest in the world in 2023.

Is this a vain ambition, fuelled by the memories of a nation that just 10 years ago flew too close to the sun and fell from grace? Or a little piece of nostalgia for the ambitions of a lost decade?

Far from it. The lessons of the Celtic Tiger have taught us caution. We will possibly be making the best-costed, conservative, well-grounded bid for a rugby event ever submitted.

The weight of the entire island of Ireland has been put behind it .

We know a win will be good for the island - North and South - for many years to come. Sport, specifically rugby, has the potential to lift not just national morale, but the economy and tourism. An economic buzz beckons, but not just for a few weeks in 2023. The prize on offer in London tomorrow is long-term.

It will not be an easy battle. We have two competitors still standing. French and South African delegations will make their own pitch in the same hotel on the same day. Formidable nations, formidable opponents, but we are optimistic that Ireland is poised to land the prize. We may not be the richest country contesting, but we have other equally important attractions. A stable Government is offering a secure financial package.

The presence of the Taoiseach delivers a strong message - that the Irish Government is placing itself four-square behind the bid. As Minister of Sport, I was able to endorse that message recently when I brought a bill through the Oireachtas giving the necessary guarantees an impeccable legal standing. The all-party support on that day for a measure that would bring business and prosperity to every corner of Ireland was unusual, but welcome.

No one could blame rugby enthusiasts in Ireland for breathing a sigh of relief that the French President Emmanuel Macron has suddenly decided, after all, not to join his team in Kensington tomorrow. It is not yet clear whether the top political heavyweights from South Africa will be backing their bid in person.

Our case is persuasive. We have the rugby credentials, holding fourth place in current world rankings. Surprising even ourselves, we have more than the necessary stadia. We are submitting 12 on our so-called "long list". That number is likely to be whittled down to eight, with the final locations including such proud names as the Aviva and Croke Park in Dublin, Pairc Ui Chaoimh in Cork and Thomond Park in Limerick. Northern Ireland is offering Casement Park, Kingspan Stadium and Celtic Park.

The games and the benefits should be geographically spread among the four provinces of Ireland. We have the infrastructure. We have the hotels. We have the stadia. We have the services.

The all-Ireland dimension is key to our success. Irish rugby is an all-Ireland game. Rugby itself is proving a unifying force, not in any territorial sense, but it is helping to bury happily vanishing old enmities. The GAA has played a noble role in opening its gates to the Irish Rugby Football Union and in its unswerving support of the campaign to bring the World Cup contest to Ireland, North and South.

That united effort offers rich rewards for the whole island. The expectation of 445,000 visitors in the shoulder season ( autumn) of 2023, the excitement of 48 games, the sale of two-million tickets and the prospect of 2.1 million bednights is a compelling argument for us to energise the nation behind the bid.

We are quietly hopeful. Tomorrow is only the beginning of the end of the bidding process. Tomorrow we make our pitch to World Rugby. On October 31, Rugby World Cup Limited publishes its recommendation. On November 15, a vote of the Rugby World Council is announced . Fingers crossed.

Shane Ross is Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport

Sunday Independent

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