When the World Cup board published its recommendation report appraising the bids to host the 2023 tournament, it was hoped that it would keep the process clean and transparent.
However, what followed was a furious fortnight in which the French and Irish bid teams aired their grievances with the endorsement of South Africa as hosts.
With Wednesday’s formal announcement of the successful host bidder fast approaching, ESPN takes a look back at the messy fallout.
Ranked as the least suitable host by the World Cup board despite being odds-on favourite with bookmakers, Ireland’s bid chairman Dick Spring responded to the report within minutes of its release — still adamant that his team could secure the right to host the tournament.
In a statement, Spring said: “While It is disappointing not to have received the initial recommendation from Rugby World Cup Board Limited, there is nothing in the report which is insurmountable and this is certainly not the end of the road. We absolutely believe Ireland can secure the tournament for 2023.”
The Irish, however, were dismissed by French Rugby Federation president Bernard Laporte, who claimed it was now a two-horse race between France and South Africa.
“As of today a final is taking shape in which France and South Africa will go head to head,” said Laporte. “A new match is beginning, and will play out until the sovereign vote on Nov. 15.
While the French and Irish camps were bullish in their statements, South Africa were delighted at being branded as the “clear leader” by World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont.
“Hosting Rugby World Cup 2023 will be a massive boost for our country as well as the game of rugby,” said South Africa Rugby’s chief executive, Jurie Roux. “We trust now that the World Rugby Council will follow through by voting to confirm what the experts have identified: that a South African Rugby World Cup in 2023 is the best result for rugby.”
However, the bickering was about to begin, with Roux’s comments about the other bids igniting the tensions: “Hopefully Ireland and France, like us, will stick to the moral high ground,” Roux said.
“You can’t add any more information, you can’t present to anybody, you can’t do any more presentations… all you can do is ask for the process to take its normal course and hopefully not be part of anything untoward.”
Roux’s comments sparked fury from Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar. Responding to Roux’s comments on a trip to Seattle, Varadkar stressed that Ireland’s bid was “still alive” and that the country would “not be pulling out” — reiterating that the Irish bid promised “full stadiums in the middle of rugby communities in our cities rather than in big soccer stadiums on the outskirts of cities that would be half empty.”
Roux’s comments also angered Spring, with the Irish chairman responding: “While it is not surprising to hear such innuendo, it is totally inappropriate. There is in place a democratic process, whereby the council members of World Rugby, through their vote, are the ultimate arbitrators of who will host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. To undermine this process in any way does a disservice to the entire structure.”
Spring went on to comment that the Irish bid team would be in “dialogue with its many friends throughout world rugby” to drum up support for the Emerald Isle’s bid.
Anger was also brewing in France, and Laporte slammed the bid process in an interview with Le Figaro — accusing World Rugby of “lies”, “negligence” and “amateurism”.
“What bothers me, primarily, is that the process was misguided, flawed,” Laporte told Le Figaro. “In the end, 80 percent of the report was made by World Rugby employees.
“There are obvious mistakes. How can World Rugby say that hotels in the most visited country in the world are worse than those in South Africa? How can it be said that there are not enough hotels in Saint-Étienne which, for the record, hosted European Championship football matches 18 months ago. They make fun of us there!
“How can they dare to say that France is not able to better organise international sports events than South Africa? During the last 10 years, 21 have been organised [in France] and South Africa just two! They give us less marks than them for the quality of our stadiums but of our nine stadiums, five of them are new!”
The French Rugby Federation sent World Rugby a list of what it called “blatant errors” in the report, and the governing body were quick to respond to Laporte’s comments, stating: “World Rugby is concerned by the reported comments by host candidates regarding the Rugby World Cup 2023 host selection process and recommendation, and in particular those attributed to the Fédération Française de Rugby.
“While disappointment and high-emotion following the announcement of a recommendation is understandable, such comments are both unfounded and inaccurate.”
But Laporte was not the only man annoyed by World Rugby’s bidding process…
IRFU Chief Phillip Browne sent a letter addressed to World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper — which was also sent to each of the World Rugby council members.
In the letter, Browne reiterated South Africa’s history of empty stadia: “There are very clear examples in recent times of starkly empty stadia in South Africa for significant fixtures.
“The evaluation report does not appear to address this in any meaningful way.”
Browne’s letter also slammed the report’s finding to rank the three bidding nations the same for security, criticised the fact that Durban’s stripping of the 2022 Commonwealth Games were not taken into account and reminded council members that they were free to vote for any of the three bids on the table.
The letter concluded: “In our opinion, Ireland’s scoring has suffered unreasonably, relative to the scoring for other bidders.”
Bernard Laporte was again vocal about the findings of the report concerning doping.
Speaking to the Times, Laporte said: “France is the leader in the crackdown and fight against doping worldwide.
“If the World Anti-Doping Agency [WADA] sees this report, they will not believe it. It is laughable. When you read a statement like that you allow for doping being acceptable, leaving the door open to abuse.”
Previously, Laporte had told AFP: “We are not rated as well over doping because they tell us that we are too strict!”
With five days to go until the host announcement, World Rugby confirmed that it had addressed all clarification requests from the bidding nations, with the governing body’s CEO Bill Beaumont saying “the window for dialogue is now closed.”
With World Rugby closing their dialogue with the bidding nations, the fallout started to calm with Browne speaking to AFP, insisting that the Irish bid could still be successful.
“No doubt about it, we were holed,” Browne said. “[The outcome] is finely balanced amongst the three bids.”
However, Browne also struck a consilatory tone: “A World Cup in Ireland would be a particular World Cup, something which fans round the world would have enjoyed,” said Browne. “But apparently that wasn’t part of the overall vision World Rugby had for it.”
Browne also said that Jurie Roux was a “gentleman” of the game, and the anger demonstrated throughout the campaign was not directed at the South African Rugby chief executive, but rather at the report itself.
While France and Ireland expressed their anger, the Springbok camp had been understandably quiet, but South Africa Rugby president Mark Alexander, who chaired Durban’s 2022 Commonwealth Games bid committee, waded into the debate.
“We have our challenges like any other country‚” SA Rugby’s boss acknowledged. “We have factionalism in our country‚ Europe has terrorism. We all have our problems.
“I do not want to comment on what these individuals have said because I don’t want to stoop to their level.”
Alexander also reminded the World Rugby council about the process that had been put in place for the bidding process.
“We as the World Rugby council agreed on an independent process. The whole idea was that the process is above reproach.
“If the vote goes the other way [against South Africa], it will be a vote of no confidence in the World Cup rugby board.
“It would be an indictment on rugby. We don’t want horse trading now because it will tarnish the image of rugby.”
The bad blood has led us to this point, and on Wednesday World Rugby will formally award the 2023 hosing rights. Expect the fallout from that to be just as, if not more, fraught than the tension arisen from the report.