Sunday 21 October 2018

Vincent Hogan: Profit carries more weight than poetry as Irish bid stalls

Too many holes in 'compromise bid' as Ireland come up short to host 2023 Rugby World Cup.

At the official launch of Ireland’s bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup last November in the Aviva Stadium were then deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness (RIP), bid ambassador Brian O’Driscoll, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, bid chairman Dick Spring and IRFU President Stephen Hilditch. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
At the official launch of Ireland’s bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup last November in the Aviva Stadium were then deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness (RIP), bid ambassador Brian O’Driscoll, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, bid chairman Dick Spring and IRFU President Stephen Hilditch. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

If you are the sort of person who considered Bob Geldof invoking the spirit of WB Yeats as a goosebump expression of our artistic culture, you will have been dismayed by yesterday's rather gloomy rugby news.

If, on the other hand, you saw that reading from 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' as just a little unctuous and self-regarding and, maybe, uncomfortably contrived, chances are that World Rugby's recommendation that South Africa host the 2023 World Cup tournament won't quite have rocked you to the core.

Ireland's bid was, palpably, impressive yet - on some level - we seemed to be selling it as a bid above arithmetic too.

In this, Geldof's performance was almost emblematic, servicing the proposal that an Irish World Cup would have a higher philosophical tenor to anything the French or South Africans could hope to summon.

We might have been offering the minimum bid guarantee, but we'd be building cross-border bridges to a vast diaspora in North America too, writing abstract cheques towards the "legacy element" that is - reputedly - so close to the hearts of those who run the game.

It's true, the Irish bid promised eye-watering revenue figures with even a government guarantee, italicised by the Taoiseach's presence in London at the final bid presentation press conference last September. But the independent evaluation report seems to have been cold to our taste for history and pageant.

It looked for certainty, not poetry.

Specifically, it focused on the quality of stadia available, concluding not unreasonably that: "Ireland's match venues require significant work."

Anyone who has been to an Olympics, a football World Cup or Euro finals tournament in recent years will know the stadium standards now considered base-line for such events.

And even a new Páirc Uí Chaoimh doesn't quite meet those standards.

That isn't because of any build-quality issues, we are aware of none. But even the most modern GAA architecture retains a profoundly different personality in terms of cover and seat numbers to the state-of-the-art constructions so central to the French and South African bids.

Only through the GAA's generosity was this Irish bid even possible, but it seems to have run aground on a necessity for compromise.

We are an island nation on the edge of the Atlantic, forever exposed and hardened to unpredictable weather.

Even Croke Park, the proposed World Cup final venue, has no Hill-end roof and, depending on wind, regularly offers scant protection from the elements to those sitting near the pitch.

Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney, Pearse Stadium in Salthill, MacHale Park in Castlebar and Celtic Park in Derry are all uncovered on three sides.

True, they would deliver an intimacy simply inaccessible in the bigger French and South African stadia where there remains the very real risk of great swathes of empty seats and an attendant absence of genuine atmosphere.

Yet, if the wind blows and the rain comes tumbling down?

Yesterday's recommendation isn't exactly parched of consolation from an Irish viewpoint, given the expressed contention that all three bid countries could successfully host the 2023 tournament. And, of course, the recommendation for South Africa isn't binding either.

But as Ireland ranked last in five of the six hosting criteria, it takes some leap of the imagination to see the numbers crunching our way when the World Rugby Council convenes in Kensington two weeks from now.

These men don't exactly have a name for being free-market idealists and the very mechanics delivering this recommendation were reflective of a desire to bring more transparency to a process previously considered some kind of twilight zone.

Litigation was threatened after the PR farce that sent the 2011 tournament to New Zealand and, even in a secret ballot on November 15, it seems hardly conceivable that sufficient council numbers (at least 20 of 39) would undermine this new way of doing business.

Kevin Potts, chief operations officer of the Irish bid, did promise yesterday, "We're going into the next phase, competing right until the last minute."

Their hope is that intense lobbying can still turn heads which, there being no precedent to this process, there's equally no guarantee that council members will comply.

Yet, what would it say if a bid recommended as being third best of three ended up with the tournament?

In September, Steve Tew - chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Union - made this very point, reflecting, "It seems odd to have an independent evaluation process done and then ignore the recommendation. Unless there is very, very good reason to do that."

Accordingly, Ireland's support for the New Zealanders during the infamous bartering of '05 (for the 2011 tournament) doesn't look as if it will reap any quick dividend here.

Potts said yesterday that the next phase was to bring, "Ireland's strengths at an emotional level to the voters", something - you suspect - that has already been fundamental to every aspect of Ireland's bid for the 2023 tournament, from videos of Barack Obama's 'Yes we can!' smile, to Liam Neeson reprising the role of Michael Collins, to Bono issuing a rallying cry on stage at Croker, to Sir Bob and that "I will arise and go now..." piece of oratory.

The consultants recommending a second World Cup for South Africa certainly won't have been factoring that stuff into their findings.

This, after all, is the first time World Rugby opened the door to bidders exceeding the tournament fee, an invitation taken up heftily by the other aspiring hosts, but not Ireland.

The World Cup is their sole chance to make money and, with organisational cracks appearing in Japan 2019, any debate about 2023 not chained to risk-free profit is unlikely to prove a long one.

In this instance, Ireland needs the old blazers - essentially - to rail against this new culture of transparency, to use cover of a secret ballot for selling or returning favours. To put old alliances above the bottom line, in other words.

Maybe, in the end, Geldof was simply reading the wrong lines. As Yeats himself once put it, "Life is a long preparation for something that never happens."

Irish Independent

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