Irish bid team up against it as telephone diplomacy begins
Last Monday, 24 hours before World Rugby (WR) made its recommendation on who should host RWC 2023, we were drawn to a piece by South African colleague Clinton van der Berg, who has contributed to these pages over the years.
Writing on his blog Mumble in the Jungle, he was delighted with the decision of the Kings to take yesterday's Guinness Pro 14 game with Ulster out of the 46,000-seater Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and bring it to the 10,000 capacity Wolfson Stadium in Kwazakhele. He said that the South African game needed to be reversed from the empty, monolithic stadia around the country, and parked instead in small, community venues where fans could make their presence felt.
"In our obsession to be big and bold we've built grand sporting cathedrals all over the place," he wrote. "They dot the landscape from north to south, a curious reflection of our relentless pursuit of vanity projects."
He attributed the vast swathes of empty space to "a flat economy and competing interests", and that it wasn't confined to rugby. Across the board in South Africa fewer people are making the effort to attend live sport. Bearing in mind the importance that World Rugby place on their cash cow - Rugby World Cup - it seemed reasonable to infer that pissing off broadcasters by asking them to come up with angles to conceal the absence of spectators would not be part of the grand plan. Equally, who would want to explain to the raft of sponsors who pay through the nose to hitch their wagon to the brand that the event really wasn't that popular after all?
So the portents were grim for South Africa's bid to host the 2023 World Cup, for how could an uninterested public not be a bottom-line issue? In other words, a risk to the success of the tournament, and the brand.
We set that alongside what Ireland had to offer. In these pages last month, having spoken to Ireland's bid director Kevin Potts, we arrived at the less-than-startling conclusion that Ireland's stadia were the weakest of the three bidders. Capacity was one thing; quality of comfort was another, as was shortage of corporate facilities. Yes they were well located, but it remains a mystery to this parish why in a climate like ours we insist on building stadia so open to the elements.
Given that the financial impact of Ireland having less capacity than either France's or South Africa's stadia would be an issue for Ireland alone - the gate receipts are for the host country - it didn't seem like a deal-breaker. So long as the stadia were well turned out, full, and didn't require a two-day pony ride to get there, it was game-on. And none of those elements represented a risk.
Clearly World Rugby thought otherwise. It's embarrassing for our Government that the technological infrastructure here is still so weak, and doubly so that evidently World Rugby think getting it sorted represents a risk.
We were confused by the lack of risk attached to South Africa on this front. Would wifi be part of the technological suite required in your average stadium? In summer 2016 we found ourselves reporting from Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth for Ireland's Third Test against South Africa. With watery wifi and local staff literally running away from fixing it, a senior South African comms man shrugged his shoulders and said: "This is Africa."
Evidently not much risk there. And, bizarrely, none over their proposed ticketing strategy, which aims for a total of 2.91 million. This would be an increase on any previous tournament, and would mean 91 per cent attendance at games. Will they be paying folks to turn up? Currently the IRFU are busy running around every voting constituency making points on this issue, as well as security - another area where they expected to score higher. Effectively they are on a mission of rebuttal. As are the French.
Both Dick Spring, Ireland's bid chairman, and Bernard Laporte, president of the French federation, waded in late last week on a number of issues. Ireland's are chiefly over stadia, security and prior hosting experience. France are going to war over Saint-Étienne being written off as a virtual hotel-free zone - they should compare notes with Killarney, those novices in tourism - as well as the independence of those who carried out the research and compilation of the report.
World Rugby responded yesterday saying they stand over their work, and will be making that point to the French especially when they meet up. Given the apparent scale of the effort that went into the World Rugby report it is an uphill climb for France and Ireland to discredit it.
First WR put together a technical group seemingly with expertise in areas such as finance, security, stadia, anti-doping etc, and they examined the bids under those headings.
Their report was farmed out to The Sports Consultancy, an independent agency, who then batted those findings back and forth with WR's technical group - which comprised a mix of their own and outside people - until both parties were happy that they had the fairest result. Laporte maintains the make-up was 80 per cent WR folks. Then, in the interests of transparency and openness, this final report was last week put into the public domain.
On the face of it this is World Rugby putting a country mile between themselves and the cloak-and-dagger carry-on that attended the decision to award the 2011 tournament to New Zealand. In the fallout from that episode they reckoned they needed to be seen taking the high road on issues of such importance, rather than the dark alleys. So they put together this process.
They hadn't bargained on this backlash though. And in the writing of the report they forgot to put on the spell-check. Moreover, whoever was in charge of proofing it was clearly under a whole pile of time pressure. That kind of stuff doesn't inspire confidence.
But even if it had been word-perfect and watertight the report was only half the battle. The other half is now being fought tooth and nail. And because the vote in London in 10 days will be by secret ballot, nobody has an accurate handle on how it is progressing.
New Zealand were first into the public domain - ahead of the report - saying they would follow the recommendation regardless of where it pointed. Then the report said that while South Africa was their recommendation, any of the three candidates had the capacity to host the show. That was the green light for France and Ireland to start manning the phones.
If it were an open vote, the ring-around wouldn't take too long. Your target listens to what you have to say, states his position, and then backs it up by voting in public. But with the secret ballot he can tell you whatever he wants, and then vote under cover.
And that's exactly where the IRFU find themselves now: dialing up the rugby world, rebutting aspects of the report, pleading for the vote, and leaving the conversations no wiser.
Meantime, the South Africans, having been down this road before with failed bids for 2011, 2015 and 2019, won't be taking anything for granted. And nor should World Rugby. They have some defending to do on the quality of their work. And even if that pans out, there is the mammoth task of filling the herd of white elephants built in South Africa for the 2010 football World Cup. Those vast arenas haven't seen much action since. This is developing into quite the safari.
Sunday Indo Sport