Saturday 24 August 2019

Tony Ward: It will take Darby O'Gill magic for Ireland to get World Cup

Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (L) and Ireland 2023 Bid Chairman Dick Spring and (inset) Darby O'Gill
Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (L) and Ireland 2023 Bid Chairman Dick Spring and (inset) Darby O'Gill
Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (L) and Ireland 2023 Bid Chairman Dick Spring take part in a press conference after Ireland presented their bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup in London. AFP PHOTO / Glyn KIRK
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It's been a confusing week in this part of the world. The findings of the Independent Evaluation Commission, established (apparently) to determine the location of the next World Cup post Japan, presented the most wide reaching issue.

For Ireland the outcome resulted in what could be best described a massive kick in the backside. The RWC fight will continue until the 15th of this month in London when the 39 votes of the World Rugby Council will be divvied out.

Then and only then will we know for sure if South Africa has been awarded their second World Cup or France their third shared tournament - although 2007 was for all intents and purposes theirs alone. As for little old us, 'the craic merchants' on the fringe of Europe, it's time to wait, see, hope and pray that what is meant to be a democratic vote ends up being just that.

The high moral ground has been taken by the Rainbow Republic and France at what they perceive to be a two-horse race with the third-placed runner having pulled up, or rather, been pulled by the Evaluation Committee as lame. No vote has been cast but Tuesday's preliminary announcement hurt. If we're honest, and I for one hold up my hands, we did think we were in pole position in the eyes of the Commission and more importantly the voting Council members.

Maybe we still are and the final ballot in 11 days' time will reveal all. But what I don't get (and of course we wouldn't be making this point if we had come out ahead of France and South Africa in the Preliminary) is a system whereby a Commission effectively tells a democratically elected body how it should vote ahead of ballots being cast.

Let's be realistic it will take the magic of Darby O'Gill and the little people to swing this around and, no, we're not losing the marbles or indeed all hope of that pot at the end of the rainbow just yet. But take this logically.

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Surely World Rugby would have its credibility blown to smithereens if the General Council does not endorse the findings of the body appointed and its bottom line recommendation that the 2023 RWC should go to South Africa or failing that France.

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According to World Rugby what we are witnessing is a complete redesign of the bidding process aimed at promoting greater transparency and "maximising World Rugby's hosting objectives".

Given that the vote on the 15th will still be held in private, as before, how does this so-called transparency work other than the Commission making the decision rather than the Council?

You vote but we'll tell you how. The perception is now one of the Commission leading the Council by the hand to the 2023 polling box and all but standing alongside while they vote. Forgive my cynicism, and no this battle ain't over 'till it's over, but why is the Women's World Cup 2017 (by a distance the best yet) beginning to look like one gigantic sop?!

Whatever else World Rugby has achieved in choosing this route it has backed itself into a corner whereby anything but a South African affirmation will represent a blow to its ruling integrity. If we could be accused of one thing it is probably that we put too heavy an emphasison on the passion of a sports daft nation.

Two days after Tuesday's 2023 announcement, the fixture schedule for Japan 2019 was unveiled. The argument has been put forward that meeting Scotland in what is effectively the Pool A decider in the opening match sees Ireland as one of the winners before a ball is kicked.

It is based on the premise that France in the final Pool D game in 2015 effectively killed any chance we had of taking on and beating the equally physical Argentinians one week on in the quarter-final.

There is no doubt the casualty list from the French encounter took its toll so providing we win the opener in 2019 it appears a much more manageable route to the knock outs and perhaps even a first ever semi-final.

Conversely, as we discovered in the inaugural tournament when losing to Wales in Wellington in 1987, drop that opening match and you are playing catch up from the start. New Zealand and South Africa have the same problem in their Pool B opener.

Point being there are pros and cons either way but based on the England experience in 2015 and providing we hit the ground running (against a now formidable Scottish squad) the Japanese stars could be aligning.

First up of course is the November Series beginning next week when the Springboks come to town.

A parallel could be made with the 2019 draw given the Boks present the biggest challenge of the three (with respect to the Pumas) over the coming weeks.

We will address the likely line-up in the coming week but the two names on most everybody's lips following the squad announcement were Simon Zebo and Bundee Aki.

Joe Schmidt spoke eloquently when outlining what he termed the IRFU's stance (effectively meaning his and David Nucifora's) on Zebo, and by extension Ian Madigan, Donnacha Ryan, Marty Moore and other flying geese of that ilk. There was more than a touch of the old headmaster about it

Of course I get the issue in relation to players based overseas as against those under IRFU management at home.

There is, as he admitted, no out and out policy in relation to overseas players per se and it is for that reason I find the treatment of Zebo particularly harsh.

Had the Corkman announced his departure last week and set off the next day I could understand his immediate expulsion but this resembles six whacks of the cane or leather from days of old.

Zebo will be playing for Munster and could be available to Ireland for the next eight internationals and another three in Australia if Schmidt and Nucifora so wished.

Zebo is being made an example to discourage other prominent players from even contemplating a similar move.

I remain to be convinced that a Tadhg Furlong, a Conor Murray or a Johnny Sexton would be receiving the same harsh treatment as Zebo is now under similar circumstances.

In relation to Aki my issue is with his lack of sensitivity when first confronted with the possibility of playing for Ireland through the three (now five) year residency rule.

I abhor everything this 'project player' principle stands for. It is contractual opportunism, nothing less. That said Schmidt is doing nothing wrong so on that basis Aki would be in my team to face South Africa too.


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