Saturday 26 May 2018

Why Ireland feels betrayed - The inside story of how lack of support from Scottish and Welsh ‘allies’ doomed World Cup bid

John Greene and Jim Glennon reveal how our Rugby World Cup dream was finally foiled

IRFU president Philip Orr, chief executive Philip Browne and Ireland 2023 Oversight Board chairman Dick Spring after last week's announcement in London Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
IRFU president Philip Orr, chief executive Philip Browne and Ireland 2023 Oversight Board chairman Dick Spring after last week's announcement in London Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

John Greene and Jim Glennon

October 31 last was the tenth anniversary of the death of Ray Gravell, the former Welsh rugby player and broadcaster, and a commemorative lunch was held that day in the main function room at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli.

The Wales rugby team that dominated the 1970s was a team - like the great Kerry team of the same era - that captured the imagination of the rugby public. Gravell was its Páidí ó Sé: he had talent, physical presence, character, charisma - the similarities are remarkable, right down to their love of their native languages, which they used at every opportunity. Sadly, something else they had in common was their untimely deaths while still in the prime of their lives.

Bid ambassador Brian O'Driscoll leaves the room after the Rugby World Cup 2023 host union announcement Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Bid ambassador Brian O'Driscoll leaves the room after the Rugby World Cup 2023 host union announcement Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

In a remarkable show, around 700 people packed into the function room on this Tuesday afternoon in West Wales to recall the life and times of a rugby legend. The MC was the BBC news anchor Huw Edwards. The lunch lasted long into the night.

A party of 20 from the Drogheda area, led by Eamon Duffy, who had been a close friend of Gravell, had taken two tables at the event as a show of support to their friends in Wales.

The three guest speakers who took to the stage in turn to share their memories of Gravell included former Ireland international John O'Driscoll. Gravell and O'Driscoll had struck up an enduring friendship on the 1980 Lions tour to South Africa. Gravell's other great Irish friend from that era was Ollie Campbell.

England and Scotland were also represented in Llanelli that afternoon, in the form of Peter Wheeler and Jim Renwick, the two other special guests. During the meal, two more Welsh legends, Derek Quinnell and Phil Bennett, sat either side of O'Driscoll. It was an occasion which made clear the deep connections and friendships that exist between the Welsh and Irish rugby communities.

O'Driscoll was first on stage to share his memories in a Q&A with Quinnell. O'Driscoll regaled the Welsh and Irish audience with tales of Gravell's doings, both on and off the field. The two Irish tables erupted at one gag, as O'Driscoll slipped seamlessly in and out of a near-perfect soft Welsh accent. "Ray," he said, "always liked to have his confidence boosted on the pitch. He liked to be told he was doing well. During a break in play in the second Lions Test in Bloemfontein he said to me, 'You're going well there, John . . . how am I doing?' 'Oh so-so,' I said back to him. 'You bastard . . . you bastard,' he shouted back as he trotted off."

O'Driscoll is one of Ireland's two representatives on the World Rugby council, along with Pa Whelan, and both were integrally involved in the bid for the 2023 World Cup. Before going on stage, O'Driscoll would have learned that the report by World Rugby's technical review group had just been published and that it had placed Ireland third of the three nations bidding for the tournament.

Gareth Davies - a member of the World Rugby executive and also one of the five directors of Rugby World Cup Ltd - was also in the audience that afternoon, and although the two former Lions team-mates were seen to exchange pleasantries, there did not appear to be any deeper conversation on Ireland's World Cup prospects. Davies would become a central figure in Ireland's downfall.

A few of the attendees that afternoon, however, did notice that O'Driscoll slipped away quietly in mid-afternoon. There was work to be done.

* * * * *

When all the rhetoric and grandstanding of the last few days is put to one side, Ireland's bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup was ultimately floored by two hammer blows: first was that report by the review group, second was the refusal of Wales and Scotland to support the bid.

In the hours after the technical review was published, the various members of the bid team got to work. With O'Driscoll committed to the event in Llanelli as a guest of honour, the other members of the bid team were together in Dublin. It quickly became clear that a twin-track strategy was required if Ireland was going to overcome the odds and succeed: the team felt there were clear issues with the report that had to be highlighted, and that lobbying for votes would have to be intensified.

The review's findings had struck a serious blow but as the team began to regroup they felt it was not a fatal blow. There was a feeling that the weighting applied to the different categories in the report maximised South Africa's chances and did most damage to Ireland's. There were questions that had to be asked, most notably around the findings in relation to security and stadia. The team was baffled too that no consideration appeared to be given to the fact that South Africa had the hosting rights to the 2022 Commonwealth Games taken off them over concerns it would not be able to follow through on its commitments.

"You have to ask yourself how can they get it so badly wrong by accident," said a source close to the bid. "And if they wanted South Africa to win it because of the trouble they are in, that's fair enough, but don't have a process like this, with Ireland spending so many millions only to have it then weighted in such a way that Ireland can't win."

When IRFU chief executive Philip Browne made public a letter to be circulated to World Rugby council members highlighting the issues as Ireland saw them with the report, it cast doubt in the eyes of some members, and also brought more uncertainty to World Rugby's process. The French too had been undermining the report in the background. Cracks were beginning to appear and the Irish team believed they were still very much in with a chance.

Yes, they had been shaken by the report. All through the process, up to the publication of the report, the Ireland team had been enthused by the reaction of World Rugby to what they were doing. At no point was there even a hint of what was to come. It felt as if the goalposts had been moved very, very late in the game - and more to the point, moved very much in favour of South Africa. "We believed we were ahead," said the source. "We were led to believe that."

The bid team felt that World Rugby was satisfied that Ireland would fill the stadia, and that they would all be ready in time and were, according to the source, "staggered" by the findings. "There was no hint of any reservations about the upgrade of the stadiums for instance," he added. "We fulfilled all the criteria very carefully."

Ultimately, the secret ballot at the World Rugby council meeting in London would decide the destination of the 2023 tournament.

On November 1, Kevin Potts, head of the Irish bid team, who had been meticulous in his organisation of the bid at every step, organised a conference call of the key individuals. There was clear intelligence that the votes of the Welsh and Scottish unions would ultimately be decisive. Other influential unions - including Australia and New Zealand, and also Argentina - who had been regarded by Ireland as firmly in their corner, would feel pressured into following the recommendation of World Rugby's review group in order to show support for the new process. For them not to do so would have undermined this process - even if now, in hindsight, it is more damaged and discredited than they could have imagined at the time.

So, after all the millions, and all the travel, and all the hard work, Ireland's prospects of hosting the World Cup had come down to this: it was in the hands of our Six Nations and Pro14 and European Champions Cup allies, Scotland and Wales. It was time to pull out all the stops. All and any connections between anyone involved in Irish rugby and anyone involved in Scottish or Welsh rugby were exploited to the full. They held Ireland's fate in their hands.

* * * * *

Even prior to the completion and publication of the technical review, Ireland had never underestimated the significance of the secret ballot. The magic number was not 20, it was 13 - 13 being the minimum number of votes needed to have a chance of surviving the first round. The bid team was confident that if it could get into a head-to-head with either France or South Africa, Ireland would come out on top.

Browne, Potts, O'Driscoll and Whelan had travelled the world presenting their vision for the 2023 World Cup to the various unions. In those countries where Ireland had an embassy, the ambassador joined the team for the presentation to underpin strongly the fact that the government was not just supporting the Irish bid, but also underwriting it.

Most unions appeared engaged with the process, and where questions were asked or queries raised, they were competently dealt with. At no stage were they left with a feeling that a union doubted the capacity of Ireland to host a World Cup. This had served to reaffirm their own view that Ireland was very much in the game.

Presentations were first given to the Welsh and Scottish boards before last Christmas. There were no indications that they would not support Ireland at this point, although Scotland emphasised the importance of money to their final decision. Privately, board members from both unions who had relationships with members of the Irish team did not seem to think there would be a problem.

However, in recent months Ireland began to hear rumours that they could not rely on Scotland. In the lead-up to the endgame, it seemed the Scottish had become close to the French.

Follow-up presentations were given to the Welsh and Scottish in early September. Neither country committed one way or the other, but appeared enthusiastic about the Irish bid.

In the 24 hours after the review group's report was published, Ireland became aware for the first time that the Welsh board was going to vote for South Africa. The word coming back from the valleys was that Wales needed to show support to Gareth Davies so as not to discredit the technical review group. With everything on the line, the Irish bid team decided to go for broke.

Syd Millar, a hugely respected figure in the international game having served formerly as chairman of the IRB - as World Rugby was formerly known - emerged as a key figure for Ireland. Big names in Irish rugby were mobilised to contact and build pressure on their Welsh and Scottish contemporaries to in turn put pressure on board members. Everybody was armed with bullet points - and these points were made over and over to any Welsh or Scottish rugby contact who would listen.

The argument as it was put to the Welsh and Scottish was that there was no logical reason not to support Ireland as a new host for the tournament. Among the main points repeated in the two weeks were that it would be akin to a home World Cup for Scotland and Wales; the ease of travel for their fans; the tradition, history and solidarity they share with Irish rugby; and the potential benefit to the PRO14 from increased exposure in the wake of a successful Irish bid.

The importance of Northern Ireland was also stressed, in that fellow UK citizens of the Welsh and Scottish had invested in this bid and they would share in a spin-off benefit, especially in terms of the economy. Government support was unequivocal - with the Dublin, Stormont and London administrations all behind the bid.

On Friday, November 3 - just three days after he had been in Llanelli - it was decided to dispatch John O'Driscoll from his home in Manchester to meet with a senior, influential member of the Welsh board with whom he had been friendly for many years. However, on the train to Cardiff he received a text from his friend that a meeting at this stage would be inappropriate. O'Driscoll got off the train at Wolverhampton and headed home. He spoke to his friend later by phone but the soundings weren't good. He relayed the news back to Dublin. Ireland now knew for sure the bid was in deep trouble.

The Irish team went into overdrive. Scotland and Wales were left under no illusions that they were in control of Ireland's fate. The Welsh and Scottish were persuaded to have board meetings to reconsider their position and while those meetings did take place early last week, they remained determined to vote for South Africa and France respectively.

As the day of reckoning approached, Ireland were certain of only seven votes, although there was also another vote coming which was only known of by a couple of members of the bid team. They kept the identity of this vote closely guarded, and are still doing so even after the event. In the immediate aftermath this extra vote was wrongly ascribed in some reports to Rugby Europe having given one of its two votes to Ireland. Both of Rugby Europe's votes in fact went to France.

Although England did not confirm until late in the day that it would be voting for Ireland, the Irish team was always quietly confident that England would, as one person put it, "do the right thing". England's rugby union had done its own diligence work on the bids, separate to the review group, and this had come out in Ireland's favour.

England's decision to back Ireland puts the Welsh stance into perspective. Wales' insistence that they had to show support for Davies looks bizarre alongside the fact that England did not feel the same pressure to save face for their own man, Bill Beaumont, who is chairman of World Rugby and also a director of Rugby World Cup Ltd.

The Irish view - shared by others - is that the whole process adopted by World Rugby to determine who would host the 2023 World Cup is in tatters. Wales, it is now thought, had assumed Ireland would be first choice after the review process and that in saying they would vote with the World Rugby recommendation, they were expecting to be voting for Ireland.

And Scotland's claim that they were swayed by the money on offer from France is also curious. The truth is that it is impossible to quantify what if any additional revenue they will receive from a French World Cup in 2023. The first of that money will not begin to trickle down until 2024, and it is then paid down by World Rugby over a four-year period. Plus, the Irish bid was confident that there would actually be a more immediate return to Scotland because a rising tide lifts all boats, so what is good for Ireland would be good for the other home unions.

Efforts to persuade Scotland and Wales to change their minds continued right to the last minute. Even during the meeting at which the vote was taken, Scottish and Welsh representatives on the World Rugby council were approached by the Irish members and lobbied again, to no avail.

The French over the years have been very active with the minor rugby nations in Europe and Asia. Their ties are deeply rooted so they were always in pole position to pick up those votes. This included Europe (2 votes), Africa (2), Asia (2), Georgia (1), and Romania (1).

In the first round, Ireland got the eight votes it knew it would get. There was no last-minute defection from Scotland or Wales. France got 18, two short of the 20 needed, and South Africa had 13. Ireland was eliminated and the World Cup dream was dead.

Had Wales voted for Ireland, the first round vote would have been: France 18, Ireland 11 and South Africa 10. South Africa would have been eliminated and in the second round Ireland was extremely confident that New Zealand (3), Australia (3) and Argentina (3) would row in behind them and get them over the line. Had Scotland voted for Ireland, the first round vote would have put Ireland in an even stronger position - France 15, Ireland 14, South Africa 10.

The IRFU and the members of the Irish bid team are convinced that if Ireland survived the first round it would have won. "We were fairly sure if we got to the second round we'd win," confirms the source. "If South Africa got through we were fairly sure we'd pick up nearly all of the countries that voted for France; if France got through we were fairly sure we'd pick up most of the countries that voted for South Africa."

In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Ireland's singling out of Wales and Scotland may have seemed shallow, the actions of a bad loser. But feelings were running very deep.

"Wales and Scotland can't say they didn't realise how significant their vote was," an official told the Sunday Independent. "They knew it. We told them. After the report, we contacted them immediately and said, this is the way it is, if you're with us we'll win it, if you're not with us we won't get past the first round. It was as black and white as that. The only thing is we didn't quite know that South Africa would get so few, so as it turned out if just Wales had gone with us we would have got out of the first round."

Privately, some of those who worked closely on the bid are said to be extremely angry with the Scottish and Welsh boards for not alone turning their backs on Ireland, but for shutting them out totally in the lead-up to the vote. Requests to both unions to accept an Irish delegation last weekend were refused.

There was pressure at Government level too, and all diplomatic channels were exhausted.

There is a view too that there may be a backlash of sorts domestically for the two unions as the feedback from the grassroots in both countries is one of extreme disappointment. Indeed, some board members from Scotland and Wales have privately expressed disappointment.

However, the IRFU and the bid team have been choosing their words carefully in public, saying they are "disappointed" with our neighbours, although Brian O'Driscoll was a little less circumspect on Newstalk on Friday night when he said that "what goes around comes around".

Just what damage this has done to the relationship between the Irish, Scottish and Welsh unions remains to be seen. The official accepted that they are still very much tied at the hip and will have to work together but agreed that there is a strain in the relationship now, and will be for some time.

What goes around, comes around is an interesting thought, given the financial strength of the Irish provinces at the moment. Will a time come when Wales and Scotland come knocking on Ireland's door for help only to find that door very much bolted shut?

In the meantime, Ireland has paid a high price for the stances taken by Wales and Scotland, stances that do not seem to stand up to scrutiny. The prospects of any Irish World Cup appear to be over.

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