LONDON – Ireland, France and South Africa all promised millions in the bank, great stadiums and “the best tournament ever” before figuratively plucking on the emotional heartstrings as they sought to earn the right to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
The Irish, who have never been the main host, are the bookmakers’ favourite, ahead of South Africa, which hosted a tournament against an extraordinary emotional, social and political backdrop in 1995, with 2007 hosts France the outsider ahead of Monday’s presentations in London.
The host nation for the 10th edition of the event will be announced on November 15, though it would be a huge surprise if the Council of the sport’s governing body World Rugby were to go against the World Cup board, which will declare its recommended candidate on October 31.
The 2015 World Cup in England set records in terms of ticket sales, TV viewing figures and income but Japan, hosts of the first Asian World Cup in 2019, will make much less money.
Consequently, cash was a big feature of all three 2023 bids, with each making a big issue of their governmental financial securities and guaranteed profits, as well as great existing stadiums and minimal travel – meaning points of difference needed to be found elsewhere.
The sight of Nelson Mandela in a Springbok shirt presenting the Webb Ellis Cup to Francois Pienaar as South Africa triumphed on home soil in 1995 is probably the most iconic image in the tournament’s history.
Pienaar was in London as part of the bid party on Monday and said of 1995: “It was insane, incredible... not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the impact it would have on our country.”
South Africa, which successfully hosted soccer’s World Cup in 2010, has the infrastructure and “destination appeal” for fans, though political instability, magnified since the government withdrew support for Durban’s 2022 Commonwealth Games bid, would appear its weak link.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, however, said there should be no concerns. “As a young democracy, we are very robust,” he said.
“There is a lot of political debate, and some of it might scare people. But what we are all sure about is (ensuring) that the principles and values of our hard-won democracy and constitution will remain stable and lasting.”
The French bid included the innovative idea that teams knocked out in the pool stage would be invited to stay through the tournament as guests and they will, also for the first time, include a closing ceremony.
Sports Minister Laura Flessel said that hosting the event along with the already-secured 2024 Olympics would provide “synergies of organisation” and that despite recent bomb attacks in the country, security was an equal concern of all bidding countries.
Slightly bizarrely, the bid party included the sons of the late New Zealand rugby superstar Jonah Lomu.
Dhyreille (7) and Brayley (8) were presented to declare how much they loved French rugby, with Dhyreille having been born in Marseille, where Lomu played three matches at the end of his career in 2009-10.
Ireland hosted matches in the 1991 and 1999 World Cups, principally hosted by Wales and England, but is now bidding for sole rights for by far the biggest sporting event to be held there.
The Irish have been buoyed by the opportunity of using previously unavailable Gaelic sports stadiums, highlighted by Dublin’s 82 000-capacity Croke Park.
While French president Emmanuel Macron was “too busy” to attend, Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was in London and underlined the fact by saying: “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.
“This bid represents the hopes and aspirations of the entire island of Ireland,” he added, reinforcing how rugby is one of the few sports where the north and south play as a combined national team and how the tournament would appeal and galvanise the country’s far-flung diaspora.
Varadkar said he had addressed World Rugby’s questions about any potential impact of Brexit and its uncertainties, making it clear that the Common Travel Area between the Republic and Northern Ireland would remain in place, while ambassador and former captain Brian O’Driscoll said the bid’s biggest draw was the fan and player experience.
“It will be the party of a lifetime,” he said.