Saturday 21 July 2018

Alan Quinlan - Fears for safety and of empty stadia in South Africa should have given Ireland the edge

Leinster’s Guinness PRO14 game against Southern Kings failed to capture the South African public’s imagination. Photo: Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
Leinster’s Guinness PRO14 game against Southern Kings failed to capture the South African public’s imagination. Photo: Richard Huggard/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

There are no two ways about it, yesterday's recommendation was a kick in the teeth. However, it's not just a setback for rugby on this island but in my opinion, for the game as a whole.

World Rugby have missed the boat. The top dollar is always going to carry sway in professional sport but, in terms of the overall package on offer, it would be a shame for Ireland not to host the Rugby World Cup in six years' time.

From the perspective of supporters, it's not a contest when you weigh things up.

While South Africa is a wonderful place to visit, and to play big Test matches, it's not as well suited for an overall tournament experience. In terms of atmosphere, Ireland and South Africa are chalk and cheese.

The multi-tiered nature of the Rugby World Cup means that any host nation needs to have a vast array of stadia, whether it is to accommodate more than 60,000 in the final, or 15,000 supporters for a pool game between two minnows.

I remember working in Nelson, a beautiful coastal town at the top of New Zealand's south island, for a Pool C game between Italy and Russia six years ago.

The odds were already against both sides progressing to the knockout stages after early pool losses but that didn't stop a carnival atmosphere developing at the 18,000-capacity Trafalgar Park.

With 12,400 in attendance the place was only two-thirds full, but it was a more than acceptable venue for such a game. Similarly, the likes of Celtic Park, the RDS and Kingspan Stadium would be ideal for hosting pool games in 2023.

I'd have massive confidence that we would fill the stadia for all of the games in Ireland, even those between the weaker nations.

In contrast, South Africa have proposed using eight stadia for the 2023 World Cup, all of them with a capacity above 40,000.

Take a moment to consider watching a pool encounter between the USA and Tonga, Japan and Romania, or Georgia v Fiji in front of 30,000 empty seats.

What good would that do for the game, and the perception of its biggest tournament? The pool games need to be treated with as much respect as the knockout stages.

The ability to fill stadia is part of the criteria for this review, and going by their initial foray into the Guinness PRO14, it would seem that South Africa have some miraculous marketing to do if they are turn things around on that front.

Leinster played the Southern Kings at Port Elizabeth's Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in what was an embarrassing start for PRO14 games in the Rainbow Nation.

The official attendance of 3,011 even looked generous as the paltry crowd was swallowed up by swatches of empty seats in the 46,000-capacity venue.

Another strength of the Irish bid is the lack of safety concerns for supporters in and around match venues.

Logistically, our stadia generally lend themselves to fans to walk to games at their leisure.

Compare that to Ellis Park in Johannesburg, which would host games throughout the 2023 World Cup, where you walking outside the stadium raises safety fears.

It's an incredible stadium once you're inside but when you leave you have to get straight on a bus or in a car, there is no chance of a meandering walk back to the city as you digest the previous couple of hours of action.

I don't want it to sound like sour grapes and I'm not looking at this through green-tinted glasses - I genuinely believe that we could host an incredible World Cup and after yesterday's verdict it looks like we will need a huge turnaround to make that happen any time soon.

Some people may argue that the €4 million we spent on the bid could have been used better but I still think it was the right decision to go for such a big event. And if we don't get it this time around, I'd like to see us try again for 2027.

Japan didn't get the nod in 2015 but stuck at it and their persistence paid off, even if their success may have been to the detriment of our bid.

Despite my concerns, South Africa is a wonderful place and crucially, they are offering more money.

World Rugby understandably want to make the tournament a commercial success and as it looks like Japan will make a loss in two years' time, alarm bells could be ringing with Ireland offering the lowest amount for 2023, £40m (€46m) less than South Africa and £30m (€34m) less than France.

It seems that we have also fallen down on concerns about our stadia being ready in time but with six years to go, all the necessary development would surely be completed in time.

Just because France and South Africa have hosted it before doesn't mean that we should be given a special dispensation - you have to prove that you would be the best hosts. But of the three contenders, I firmly believe we would put on the best show.

I think we would have generated a lot of revenue and could have ticked most of the boxes. It's just a shame that it looks like we won't get the opportunity to prove that.

We're not out of the race yet but we have a lot of ground to make up in very little time. However, if we do fall short we need to dust ourselves down and hopefully go again for 2027, it's definitely something that is worthwhile pursuing.

Irish Independent

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