Sunday 17 February 2019

Comment: IRFU on the offensive as World Cup race heats up

Browne letter puts further pressure on World Rugby ahead of Council vote in a week's time

Philip Browne doesn't mince his words in his letter to the World Cup Rugby Council Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Philip Browne doesn't mince his words in his letter to the World Cup Rugby Council Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

One wonders if World Rugby regret their move towards what they billed as a more transparent process for the 2023 World Cup vote.

Since the RWCL technical review group recommended South Africa as hosts last week, the game's governing body's processes have been scrutinised and they have been asked uncomfortable questions.

After initially licking their wounds having missed out on the endorsement, the French and Irish bid teams dug deeper into the lengthy report and, when they did so, they began to find flaws.

World Rugby are standing over their process, but the latest missive from Ballsbridge will make for uncomfortable reading on Pembroke Street as Philip Browne calls a number of facets of the recommendation into question.

In a week's time, the members of Council will gather in Kensington, London to cast their votes. Last week's recommendation, the IRFU has been quick to remind them, remains just that: a guiding document for their decision.

By finding flaws in the methodology and pointing out some big issues that appear to have passed without serious consideration, the union hopes it can cast enough doubt in as many minds as possible to take the report out of the equation.

Rivals France are also chipping away, with Bernard Laporte favouring megaphone diplomacy.

Ireland are painting a picture of big, empty stadia at rugby's flagship event, while raising the spectre of South Africa's high crime rate and junk bond status as risks. They are wondering why the technical report appeared to make light of Durban losing the right to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Queries Whether Browne gets answers to his queries, he will hope that by asking the questions he has planted the seed of doubt.

He begins with stadia, pointing to the regular sight of empty seats at South African Super Rugby venues - something Browne asserts is not addressed "in any meaningful way" in the report.

"What specific consideration," he wonders, "was given as to how South Africa will achieve full stadia, particularly across the pool stages?"

He follows that up with two questions about the scoring given with regard to ticketing in the report, poking holes in the methodology used in a section that left Ireland with a deficit it could not recover.

Browne then moves to security, an issue he describes as "delicate".

The IRFU chief asks if "an independently recognised, world-class security organisation was used to review the security situation with each bidding country - including personal safety as was the case with 2015 and 2019 evaluation process and, if not, why not?"

Browne also asks that such an assessment be shared with Council members before voting, if indeed it was carried out.

He then moves to the Commonwealth Games, which were scheduled for Durban but will now take place in Birmingham.

The South African city was stripped of its hosting rights a month after a government minister indicated the country could not afford to host the event.

Pointing to the reputational damage done to the Commonwealth Games as a result, Browne asks Gosper if RWCL did a full due diligence on the reasons behind the Durban decision, whether the organisers were asked about their experiences and if this was raised directly with the South African government.

The final point Browne makes in his letter surrounds finance.

With their currency, the Rand, struggling and their sovereign credit rating currently BB+ or junk status, the IRFU chief wonders if World Rugby have carried out a sovereign risk assessment as they did in 2015 and 2019 and asks them to share that assessment if they did.

Browne's letter is unlikely to be well received in South Africa where his counterpart Jurie Roux has refrained from getting involved in a battle for hearts and minds - preferring to lean on the report.

"It's clear that at this stage there is no lobbying allowed," Roux said last weekend. "We all submitted our bids and had our opportunity to present them to the World Rugby Council.

"You are allowed to make public statements. You are also allowed to evaluate the report and make statements based on those evaluations.

"We have maintained the moral high ground throughout this process by not going to individual unions but rather presented to councils and through collective bargaining processes where all the other unions were involved.

"For each and every statement other unions are making, we could probably deliver a similar statement but we won't go there. We believe our bid was the best and that belief was vindicated by an independent technical committee."

They have placed their faith in the process, but Ireland and France are looking to sow seeds of doubt among the delegates who will gather in London.

Always influential, New Zealand has pledged to go with the World Rugby process but South Africa are significant strategic partners of the NZRU and it should be no surprise to see Steve Tew throw his weight behind Roux.

Others have kept their counsel and the French and Irish bid teams clearly believe that at least some of the votes are there to be won in a secret ballot.

The three will be run off against one another and if no one reaches 20 of the available 39 then the last-placed bid will be eliminated.

In his letter, Browne has reminded Council members that the recommendation is not binding and that they are to vote freely after considering the report.

A vote against South Africa would be seen as a significant slap in the face for World Rugby, but with a week to go the gloves are off.

Ireland must hope they can land a decent blow.

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Irish Independent

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