RWC 2023 bidders questioned on budget, security and the Olympic effect
By Callum Murray in London
Questions over budget, security and a country's ability to host a Rugby World Cup just a year before an Olympic Games all confronted the three countries bidding to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup, who gave their final presentations to the World Rugby Council today, ahead of a further meeting of rugby union’s decision-making body on 15 November to select the winner from France, Ireland and South Africa.
The bids each rallied star power to boost their presentations. France’s featured iconic French former international player Sebastien Chabal and the two young sons of the late All Black superstar Jonah Lomu (one of whom was born in France when Lomu was playing club rugby there); Ireland’s line-up included former Ireland and British and Irish Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll and the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar; South Africa paraded two Rugby World Cup-winning captains, John Smit and Francois Pienaar, along with Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of the country.
Each bid was given a maximum of 30 minutes in length, with up to 20 minutes of questions and answers afterwards. All of the presentations were given behind closed doors, leaving the gathered media with the unsatisfactory task of trying to pick the bones out of what the bid teams were prepared to reveal in press conferences afterwards.
France 2023 The French bid was first to make its presentation, aiming to highlight four of its attributes: showing a firm commitment from the French government (Laura Flessel, the French sports minister was part of the team, representing, she insisted, the president French Emmanuel Macron); a series of reforms to French rugby “that will be speeded up if we are chosen to host the event”; “excellent organisation, infrastructure and stadia”; and its experience in hosting major sports events.
Chabal drew on his experience of taking part in two Rugby World Cups, in Australia in 2003, then in his home country in 2007, to introduce two proposed novelties in the French bid, saying: “It’s an exceptional event that has a great relationship with its fans. That’s why France 2023 is inviting all teams, even those knocked out in the pool stages, to stay until the end of the competition so they can experience it fully.
“The second gift will be a closing ceremony [no previous edition has had such an event]. In the past players just went home a little sad. We will have everyone together to celebrate. That’s 600 players who will be welcomed to the closing ceremony.”
The bid team showed a video which included a nice conceit: Bernard Laporte, the president of the French rugby federation, and former head coach of the national team, giving a motivational team talk to representatives of the entire French population in a dressing room: bakers, construction workers – even one of the showgirls from the Moulin Rouge. The conceit? The entire population would play a part in hosting a successful Rugby World Cup in France.
A concern that was raised over the capacity of the country to host such a major tournament just a year before Paris will host the 2024 Olympic Games (there are similar concerns over Japan hosting the 2019 edition a year before Tokyo will host the 2020 Olympics), was answered by Flessel, who claimed: “There are huge synergies between the two events. It won’t compete with the Olympics and Paralympics. Our strategy is to host world sporting events, and we will have the facilities necessary. It will be an opportunity, a catalyst to better develop rugby. We’ll make sure we further develop sporting values, thanks to French ‘savoir faire’. We’ll ensure that we have the best technological logistics in place for 2023. It’s a source of great pride; it’s in no way in opposition to Olympics.”
In July, the French rugby federation submitted two guarantees to World Rugby, totalling €407 million ($484 million). The first guarantee, from the federal government, was for €171 million, exceeding the £120 million ($162 million) hosting fee stipulated by World Rugby, while the second guarantee, from an unnamed “large private French bank,” was for €236 million to “cover commitments in terms of the organising costs of the tournament.”
France 2023 has claimed that the tournament will produce revenues of €477 million, of which €373 million will come from ticketing.
Ireland 2023 Then came the Irish bid, with the youthful Taoiseach Varadkar underlining, as did several of the other speakers, the potential of the 70-million-strong Irish diaspora to help promote the tournament worldwide: “For every one of us at home, there are 12 or more abroad,” was a phrase repeated several times.
The team also focused on Ireland’s legendary reputation for hospitality, with O’Driscoll pointing out that the Irish phrase for ‘welcome’ translates to ‘100,000 welcomes’. “People can expect to be smothered with love,” he continued. “This is the biggest tournament we’re ever likely to host. GAA [Gaelic sports] and soccer fans will all embrace it. We’re sports lovers, not just rugby lovers.”
France’s bid is arguably favourite to win over the World Rugby Council because it is potentially the most profitable, but Varadkar sought to address any misgivings about the budget for a Rugby World Cup in Ireland, together with lingering concerns over the conflict that wracked the island for decades (the bid is from the whole of the island of Ireland, comprising both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, part of the UK), saying that the bid is “fully backed by the governments in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The business case adds up for World Rugby and for Ireland. It’s really a north-south bid showing how sport can bring people together.”
Philip Browne, chief executive of the Irish Rugby Football Union, added that the Irish government will pay the tournament fee of £120 million, enabling organisers to offer tickets at prices as low as €15. He said: “That’s a guarantee of the cost of tournament. The Irish government has underwritten the entire cost.” The government has underwritten the domestic sponsorship budget, Browne added.
Among the questions asked by council members during the presentation was one about the effect of ‘Brexit’, the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, leaving it with a direct land border with Ireland, which will remain in the union. Varadkar said: "We pointed out that, while there’s plenty of uncertainty about trading and political issues, the common travel area will remain in place. Everyone - the Irish government, the British government and the European Union - wants that.”
South Africa 2023 The South African bid also focused on budget, after initial concerns that the South African government might not give its full support, including financial guarantees (these were only formally confirmed as recently as August).
Ramaphosa stressed the country’s experience of hosting major sports events, including the 1995 Rugby World Cup, just a year after the end of apartheid, and the 2010 Fifa World Cup, while Jurie Roux, the chief executive of SA Rugby, pointed out that “an irrevocable” £160 million out of the overall tournament budget of £360 million is guaranteed by the government.
Reflecting on the effect of the 1995 World Cup on the newly apartheid-free country, Pienaar, who captained the winning South African side at that tournament, said: “It was insane, incredible. In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined the impact on our country. It was an emotional roller-coaster. Look at the Olympics in London: what happened to the city was phenomenal. It’s the opportunity to dress the table for the world. In 1995, we didn’t have the security protocols in place [that are available now], and I didn’t feel at risk.”
The mention of security hinted at a potential Achilles’ heel for the South African bid, but Ramaphosa insisted that the country’s constitution guarantees stability, saying: “We are a country still growing and developing but since 1994 we have made unbelievable strides. Many people though our democracy would not last. What has stood us in good stead is our constitution, which is regarded as the best in the world. Under [Nelson] Mandela’s leadership, we ensured there are a number of good institutions that will support democracy: even if the wheels come off one institution, other institutions are there to support demography.
“In the future, our democracy will have matured even more. I believe it is well poised to be one of the most stable countries in the world, politically. People may get worried about what happens in our parties but that’s par for the course, it’s politics. Democracy will endure. This is a hard-won democratic freedom which people do not want to see wrested out of their hands. Political stability is guaranteed, it is in the bank.”
Ramaphosa also took the risk of venturing into the highly sensitive political territory of the racial make-up of South Africa’s national rugby team (traditionally almost exclusively white), claiming: “In 1995 the South African rugby team was almost all white. In 2023, it will be the ideal diverse rugby team and prove what Mandela said: that rugby is a great unifier."
Bill Beaumont, chair of World Rugby, responded to the presentations, saying: “Today represented an important and exciting milestone in the host selection process for Rugby World Cup 2023. It’s clear from the presentations that we have three exceptionally strong, impressive and exciting bids with full government support. Each, I believe, is capable of hosting a superb Rugby World Cup.”Sportcal