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Have the Irish finally stopped licking their bid wounds and identified a better strategy to host a World Cup?

Once bitten, twice shy? Only time will tell whether this age-old proverb is definitively cast in stone when it comes to the IRFU and bidding to host the World Cup. 

When they staggered out of a Kensington hotel in London in November 2017 with their attempt to win the rights to the 2023 tournament embarrassingly shattered, long-serving CEO Philip Browne gritted his teeth and admitted: “There’s no politics like sporting politics.”

He had just had his arse smacked in rugby’s corridor of power, Ireland eliminated from a three-way race with a miserly eight votes out of a possible 39, three coming from old rivals England. 

All the more humiliating was how Celtic cousins, the likes of Scotland and Wales, turned the other cheek as did Italy, the impoverished rugby nation the IRFU had done so much to help over the years. 

Having spent the guts of 18 months travelling the world politicking and canvassing votes elsewhere, an exhaustive itinerary that even included a visit to Outer Mongolia of all places, the nine votes – three each for the Scots, Welsh and Italians – that would have given their bid oxygen in the election room were all mislaid.

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The Irish had forgotten the first rule of politics: doorstep your neighbour and keep on doing it until you know their vote will 100 per cent be cast the way you want it to. All the more galling was how the IRFU never really grasped until the damning election result was announced how out of depth they had been all along. 

Even after World Rugby’s evaluation report had emerged some weeks earlier, a review where Ireland failed to top rivals South Africa and France in any of the five main criteria – vision and hosting concept, organisation and schedule, venues and host cities, tournament infrastructure, and finance, commercial and commitments, they carried on in denial, somehow believing everything would magically be all right on the night.  

The fairytale never materialised and before making a hasty getaway from the scene of their devastation, the stark message was never again would they bid for the World Cup.

“Not under these parameters,” said Browne, heading for the exit after a bid idea that germinated when attending the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand had been so publicly shredded.

To the victor go the spoils. Just this week, World Rugby, fresh from the razzmatazz that was the soaraway success of hosting the 2019 finals in the Far East, breezily revealed it had concluded its first official coordination meetings in Paris since the hosting ball was passed from Japan 2019 to France 2023 earlier this November.

Its checklist was busily getting ticked. Host city agreements signed with Saint-Etienne, Lille, Nantes, Marseille, Nice and Toulouse. A ‘bold and ambitious’ manifesto launched for nationwide youth and community engagement. Swanky new tournament headquarters opened in Paris. Over 1.7million reported views of a ‘Rendezvous en France en 2023’ video. And more than one million fan registrations to the Rendezvous en France en 2023 database.

Less breezily received this past week was Brian O’Driscoll’s admission to RugbyPass that the embittered IRFU just might eventually stop licking its wounds, get around to having a rethink about all this World Cup bid malarkey and ultimately have another cut at trying to host the tournament.

The former IRFU bid ambassador had just been to Japan, a vibrant experience that seemed to rekindle in him the notion that anything Yokohama could do in hosting a final, Dublin could do just as good or even better if given the chance.

“You have got to try and push into a new market where we haven’t seen before,” he said about future World Cup destinations. “So 2027, if they choose America or if they decide to come to Ireland, either of them I am pretty cool with.”

Ireland 2023

Ireland formally announced their 2023 bid in 2014, with Andrew Trimble, Paddy Jackson, Robbie Henshaw and Jordi Murphy the players rolled out on launch day (Photo by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye via Getty Images)

As it stands, just three countries – Argentina, Australia and Russia – have officially declared their interest in hosting the 2027 finals, but O’Driscoll’s suggestion regarding Ireland didn’t sound like some spontaneous response conjured up on the spot as the all-important politics were something he has also already considered even though a fourth successive northern hemisphere-based finals after England, Japan and France might not be in World Rugby’s best interests. 

“I think we have to probably look at a different model and sharing games with the UK, with Wales, England and Scotland probably, and not expect to do the whole thing ourselves,” he said.

“That is maybe the area where we potentially fell down in guaranteeing votes. There is a lot of politics in sport and maybe we were a little bit naive with the thought we were going to get a Rugby World Cup after (the tournament) going to another new territory in Japan.

“The obvious choice was to come back to one of the strongholds in South Africa or France, but when it comes around again and if we put our hat in the ring I’d be more hopeful that we might get a positive result next time.” 

It’s a potentially canny ruse, guaranteeing the votes of your neighbours by offering them some matches. On reflection, not having this on the table two years ago was likely a fatal flaw. After all, sharing had been the name of the game in these parts. 

Look at how England 2015 had eight of its 48 matches farmed to the Welsh Rugby Union’s Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Eight years earlier, France 2007 had given away six matches, four to the WRU’s Cardiff and another three to the Scottish Rugby Union’s Edinburgh.

It all dated back to when former WRU chairman Glanmor Griffiths brokered a deal with the French, England, Irish and Scottish rugby unions that enabled Wales to be the main host of the 1999 World Cup. In return for backing the WRU, the other nations hosted some of the games during that tournament and shared in profits.

The IRFU’s ambition to go it alone in 2017 was curious in the sense that an agreement between the WRU and IRFU in 1998 allegedly had a clause stipulating that if Ireland ever hosted the tournament it would effectively be bound to pay a fee to the WRU at least 20 per cent of the net financial benefits generated.

It was said when Ireland was formulating its 2023 bid that this agreement no longer applied. Fair enough, but the kickback was the Welsh votes ultimately going elsewhere when it mattered. 

No politics like sporting politics? You bet. 

WATCH: RugbyPass looks back on some of our favourite moments with the fans from the 2019 World Cup in Japan

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Have the Irish finally stopped licking their bid wounds and identified a better strategy to host a World Cup?