OPINION: Over two special nights in two packed stadiums 466km apart last week, France exhibited exactly why it will host a magnifique Rugby World Cup in 2023.
The All Blacks played their opening November test against Les Bleus at Stade de France in front of more than 81,000 spectators who created a rollicking, spine-tingling atmosphere. The next day they decamped down to Lyon (just two hours, city centre to city centre, on the wonderful high-speed train) and just two nights after that their second-stringers met a French XV in front of a smidgeon under 60,000 fans at Groupama Stadium, another cauldron of a venue that ticks all the boxes for the modern sporting facility.
They were two fabulous occasions at two world-class sporting stadiums in front of two passionate crowds. Travel was easy and comfortable, both between cities and to and from venues (providing you don’t mind a bit of a squeeze on Paris’ Metro), and it was hard not to get the impression that rugby is riding a wave in France. The French love their code, and signs abound that they’re finally getting their act together on the field.
As always, a strong host country adds a special flavour to a World Cup. Just think the Boks in ’95 and All Blacks in ’11, and the indelible impact made by those two countries lifting Willie Webb in front of their own delirious fans. There’s also no doubt England’s group stage exit in ’15 took a little gloss off that event.
Let’s get one thing straight: South Africa and Ireland, the beaten bidding cities, would have made fabulous hosts. And there were more compelling emotional reasons for both to get the nod.
The French last hosted the tournament in 2007, and just 16 years between World Cups is an uncomfortably short juncture. South Africa’s one and only previous event had been back in 1995 when the Nelson Mandela factor, and the emergence of a special All Blacks side, made it a tournament for the ages. Quite possibly the best of them all.
And, of course, Ireland have never hosted the Cup, so in a sport that claims to be spreading its gospel globally, you can’t help but feel rugby missed a chance to take a moral high ground and tick off another frontier in the event’s history.
You will get no argument from anyone Irish on that front.
But of course money talks. Politics too. France, doing a good job of rebounding as a nation from a series of horror terror attacks, played both cards to the hilt. Anyone who thinks this was a rugby decision is doing a passable imitation of an ostrich. Overtones of Fifa abounded through this process.
Here are the cold hard facts. France will host the most profitable tournament in RWC history – that’s a given, with some of the figures being talked about mind-boggling. Given global rugby is effectively funded for four years on the back of this one tournament, that factor cannot be downplayed.
They also have the infrastructure, transport networks, rugby culture and financial clout to create a memorable tournament. So they tick the two key boxes. There is talk of economic benefits in the billions, a 40 per cent hike in revenue from 2015 that might hit $1 billion and, of course, the biggest profit ever seen.
World Rugby’s bank accounts will benefit hugely, but, of course, so will every rugby nation that take part, and most importantly, the tier-two countries who rely so heavily on their RWC windfall will receive manna from heaven.
Do you think that wasn’t pointed out by France? Who voted for them in the first round? Aside from Scotland and Italy, it was Japan, Asia, South America, Europe, Africa (yes, they didn’t support their own continent), Georgia and Romania.
You think the minnows don’t know where their bread is buttered?
Yes, South Africa needed this event more, given all the country’s issues, but there had to be questions around security and transport. And Ireland would have hosted the best RWC party ever (hopefully that’s just been delayed), but where would they have played all the matches, and housed all the people?
But in a democratic system, France played the political game best, delivered the most compelling financial reasons and, just for good measure, demonstrated palpably this November that it remains well and truly a rugby hot spot.
– Sunday Star Times