Friday 20 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Wild optimism of Rugby World Cup bid hit by a dose of reality

‘I’m not saying that the public wouldn’t turn out in big numbers for a world cup on our own soil but there’s no point pretending Ireland is a kind of northern hemisphere New Zealand’. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
‘I’m not saying that the public wouldn’t turn out in big numbers for a world cup on our own soil but there’s no point pretending Ireland is a kind of northern hemisphere New Zealand’. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Be careful out there. The technical review group's report on the 2023 Rugby World Cup venue has led to Met Éireann issuing an orange schadenfreude warning. Apparently so much of the stuff has been building up there's danger of low lying coastal areas being flooded and structural damage being caused by huge gusts of it. If mirth is not exactly general all over Ireland, it's certainly audible in many counties.

Laughter is not an entirely inappropriate reaction. My own first response to the likely failure of our bid was to savour the black comedy of it all. It was like seeing a team whose triumph had been predicted by every pundit get beaten in an All-Ireland final. There'd been so many articles about the unparalleled excellence of the Irish bid it felt as though we'd already been awarded the tournament. Instead, the IRFU's certainty that everyone loved our proposal was like Del Boy's certainty that the bar counter was going to be there when he went to lean on it. You gotta laugh, intcha?

Ireland's secret weapon had apparently been the promotional video stapled to our proposal, a video which positively reeked of class. Bono! Drico! Bob Geldof doing the 'Lake Isle of Inishfree', "I will arise and go now, mumble mumble, mutter mutter, cabin banana republic septic isle, never mind the fucking bee-loud glade just give us the fucking world cup, OK." Magic darts.

Now it seems that our video may have been less a Book of Kells for the information age than a sporting version of the VHI 'Toyyyneee babies" or AIB 'We're backing, give me a lozenge before I burst into tears, brave," ads. We might have been better off just cramming Pat Shortt into his lounge singer suit and getting him to croon our list of USPs.

One person who didn't think there was anything to laugh about was our beloved Taoiseach. Mr Novelty Socks implicitly slagged off the South African bid with his statement that, "What we want is a tournament where people see matches in full stadiums in the middle of rugby communities in our cities rather than in big soccer stadiums that would be half-empty. That's part of the case that we'll be making to the rugby unions."

Varadkar's statement inadvertently reveals the three-card-trick nature of our world cup plan. By what stretch of the imagination could Kilkenny, Killarney or Castlebar be described as 'rugby communities?' And how can we slag off the South Africans for playing in soccer stadiums when our bid is largely dependent on GAA grounds?

The 'rugby communities' line reminds us of the IRFU's insistence to World Rugby that Ireland is a rugby mad nation. Yet anyone who lives here knows this isn't really true. Rugby has made significant and praiseworthy advances in popularity in recent decades but it still lags behind Gaelic games and soccer.

I'm not saying that the public wouldn't turn out in big numbers for a world cup on our own soil but there's no point pretending Ireland is a kind of northern hemisphere New Zealand. Only South Dublin and Limerick can really be described as rugby communities. Connacht play at a small capacity dog track. Munster's last home game in Cork drew 8,008 fans, less than half the number which attended the county hurling final/football final doubleheader. Fewer fans (15,291) attended Ulster's European Champions Cup win over Wasps than attended Down's first round Ulster Football Championship match against Armagh in Newry. This is rugby country?

Unlike some of those exulting in the rejection of the bid I'd quite like to see Ireland host a Rugby World Cup. But some of the arguments advanced since the technical group's report have done us little credit. Saying that infrastructural shortcomings shouldn't matter because we'll get to them once we've been given the tournament is risible special pleading. Trying to make capital out of terrorist attacks in France and murders in South Africa is simply despicable.

Looked at dispassionately, the report makes it clear that we'd been wildly optimistic to regard Ireland as overwhelming favourites to get the nod for 2023. So why did so many pundits, and even the bookies, apparently get it so wrong?

I think it's because the boys at the top of the IRFU are the kind of guys usually accorded a fair bit of deference in this country. That perceptive economist Morgan Kelly memorably described our banks as being "run by faintly dim former rugby players." At the root of the economic collapse, whose 10th anniversary is just around the corner, was not just the fact that these FDFRPs were absurdly cocksure of themselves, but that this certainty was shared by our politicians. Brian Cowen believed the bankers when they told him everything would shake out alright in the end, Leo Varadkar believed the IRFU when they told him our bid was best.

The bankers may not be as bullish as they once were but their style of boundless bourgeois confidence lives on in the IRFU. Sometimes that blithe optimism rubs off on the rest of us. While the FAI and the GAA face constant criticism for their perceived administrative mistakes, there's a complacent assumption that the IRFU is a really well run organisation.

Is it though? I can't help recalling the run-up to the Women's Rugby World Cup when we were assured that the tournament would be a roaring success, that it would capture the public imagination and that the Irish team were superbly well prepared. It turned out that the Irish team were in a state of utter disarray and that, for all the claims made on its behalf, the tournament cut a pretty unimpressive figure.

Perhaps my favourite stat of the year is that more spectators attended the ladies Gaelic football All-Ireland final than attended every game in the Women's World Cup put together. It strikes me that putting the Irish team into the Belfield Bowl, where small crowds were guaranteed, showed a lamentable lack of imagination.

Imagine the kind of statement which would have been made by having them play in a bigger stadium in front of even half the crowd that watched Dublin play Mayo in Croke Park. Surely the IRFU's vaunted promotional ability might have made that a viable proposition. No? A third of the crowd then? A quarter? They couldn't even manage a tenth. In rugby country.

That lack of adventure merely foreshadowed the decision, once the tournament was over, to downgrade the position of women's rugby team manager to a part-time short-term post. The decision underlined the IRFU's status as the great sexist dinosaur of the main Irish sporting bodies.

It was their CEO Philip Browne who made the statement, when asked at a Dail committee why the Union remained entirely male at its top levels that, "The emergence of the women's game has not yet been matched by the emergence of women with the accumulated desires and skills to work their way through the democratic structures of Irish rugby . . . it will be difficult to find suitably qualified female candidates with the accumulated rugby wisdom and skill without resorting to tokenism." The leaders of the GAA and the FAI would have enough sense not to come out with something like that. Yet Browne's old school chauvinist piggery attracted little attention. The presumption seems to be that unlike the gurriers of the FAI or the bogmen of the GAA, the gentlemen of the IRFU are above criticism.

Like I said, their confidence in themselves can be infectious. I'm still not entirely sure that they won't be able to perform some boardroom trickery and wrest victory from the jaws of defeat. Like Brian Cowen, I'm only a simple rural lad compared to these boys. But if they do lose, the IRFU's reputation for infallibility will have taken a serious knock. Which will be no harm at all if, for starters, it leads to them getting down off their high horse to address the concerns of the women's team.

Yet, having said all that, I still hope Ireland can overcome logic and fair play to bring the World Cup here in 2023. You don't have to pull on the green jersey to cheer for it. It's important to distinguish between the IRFU at the top level and Irish rugby as a whole. All over the country people are doing tremendous work at grassroots level. The social profile of the game has changed, particularly outside the cities, to an extent that makes it absurdly old-fashioned to think of it as a redoubt of privilege. That old dog is dead. Maybe rugby is slightly more middle class than the GAA and soccer slightly more working class than either of them, but the gaps are not as great as they once were.

So while it was fun to see the shock on IRFU faces when the technical group report came out, it's essentially mean-spirited to hope that we don't secure an event which would afford a great deal of pleasure to the Irish sporting public, the lion's share of who would really like to see the RWC come here.

Will it? Probably not. But there's always next time. Dim the lights. Drum roll. "Doo-bee-doo-bee-doo 2027, doo-bee-doo-bee-doo . . ."

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