Tom Hamilton, Senior Writer 363d

Ball in World Rugby's court after bids for RWC 2023 hosting rights

LONDON -- Recurrent themes ran through the three bids presented to World Rugby's council by France, Ireland and South Africa as they seek to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Each emphasised financial security, a play on emotions and an aesthetic canvas of cultural heritage and beautiful landscapes.

Potentially difficult questions over political sensitivities were sidestepped with the grace of the rugby stars of yesteryear present as they helped each of their country put forward the best case possible for why they should be chosen to host rugby's premier tournament in six years' time.

Just a few days on from World Rugby delivering a clear kick up the backside to Japan's preparations ahead of 2019, each did their best to hammer home why they offer the most secure and attractive proposition to the sport's governing body. World Rugby could prefer the closest thing possible to a no-risk proposition when it comes to picking the 2023 host as Japan falls behind schedule.

Presentations to the council were kept to 50 minutes as rugby luminaries mixed with politicians, eye-watering financial figures and guarantee after guarantee.

France were first up. Sebastian Chabal and Frederic Michalak were present, as was their sports minister Laura Flessel who had Bernard Laporte, the president of Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR), sat next to her with recent turbulence seemingly temporarily parked. And then there was their surprise move to include the late Jonah Lomu's two sons as part of their presentation as Dhyreille was born in Marseille. Both sat on Chabal's lap at the top table, dwarfed by his arms wrapped around them.

Despite Emmanuel Macron, President of France, not appearing in the promotional video, or travelling to London, Claude Atcher -- director of the French bid -- said their proposal had the full backing of the government, adding that part of their package guarantees a number of reforms in the FFR. They also highlighted the technical elements of how they would stage the tournament, focusing on organisation, infrastructure, stadia and financial undertakings.

Add all this to the backdrop of their financial guarantee to World Rugby. The figure the governing body is asking from the candidates is £120m. France have put together a package worth in excess of €500m.

After Laporte and Chabal gave their memories of the 2007 World Cup which was hosted by France, a promotional film showed Laporte giving a changing room pep talk to all manner of figures from entertainers to police officers to a baker. Restaurants were told to have French classic cuisine on their menus, alongside fish and chips and, slightly bizarrely, kangaroo kebabs for travelling fans.

Potential issues over Paris staging the 2024 Olympics and a perception the 2023 World Cup would be cast as a mere precursor were neatly qualified by Flessel, as she focused on it bringing a synergy to their preparations, saying the two were "no way in opposition".

It was then Ireland's turn. With Taoiseach Leo Varadkar headlining their delegation, Brian O'Driscoll made a point of thanking him for attending, with Macron and South Africa president Jacob Zuma both absent. Varadkar himself said, "I wouldn't have missed today for anything", and afterwards revealed British Prime Minister Theresa May had given her approval to Ireland's bid.

Their presentation was led by emotive video with Ireland women's captain Niamh Briggs narrating one. "We are a noisy bunch, the Irish make themselves heard... in the streets, the corridors of power, on the page, stage and in unexpected places", she said.

'Diaspora' was a constant theme throughout their presentation, bringing in the 70m Irish exiles living outside of the country and why they will become global ambassadors for the tournament in whichever part of the world they find themselves in. Bob Geldof narrated a video highlighting this aspect, bringing in part of W.B. Yates' poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'.

Bono also had his say as footage was shown of him asking a sold-out Croke Park, "All those in favour of hosting the 2023 Rugby World Cup?" "Motion passed," Bono concluded after they roared approval.

Varadkar and David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, commented on the significance of this being a joint bid from the whole country, but fielded questions on whether Brexit fallout will be a problem and if the bid can be truly unified due to the political impasse in Northern Ireland.

Their £120m guarantee to World Rugby will be paid by the government, while they emphasised they can keep ticket prices low, with the cheapest ones coming in at €15.

Then it was South Africa's turn. With vice president Cyril Ramaphosa headlining their delegation, he was flanked at either end of the top table by World Cup-winning captains Francois Pienaar and John Smit as they unveiled what they are calling a 'triple-win bid' to host the tournament.

This outlines their plans for the competition to be a "win for the sport, the supporters and most importantly a win for the players", with South Africa Rugby Union president Jurie Roux saying they had offered a financial guarantee of £160m to World Rugby.

The video presented drew on the success of the 1995 World Cup, and Ramaphosa frequently referenced the late Nelson Mandela, saying if they were awarded the tournament Mandela's belief that rugby is a true unifier "will be played out in reality". He also promised that their transformation plan means that by 2023 the Springboks will be an "ideal, diverse" team to showcase to the world.

Smit commented on how South Africa have an "unfair advantage" on the emotional side of their bid and mentioned you can feasibly get from Johannesburg to Durban and back in a day to enjoy shark diving.

But what marked their bid out as being slightly different was the emphasis on player welfare. That was one of their key messages, saying that each team will stay in the same base and hotel for the entirety of the pool stages, and players will not have to traipse around the country, checking in and out of hotels every other day. 'It's all about the players', headlined a page in the brochure they handed out.

They also drew on the worldwide tournaments they have recently hosted, and how the exchange rate means you can buy three beers in South Africa for the price of one in France or Ireland. Their campaign brochure featured the 'Big Mac Index', highlighting how much cheaper one will be there than in their two rival countries. But they too had to answer on political turbulence. Ramaphosa answered saying they will be a fully adult country by 2023, with it being 29 years after Mandela came to power and abated any worries over security. 

So now comes World Rugby's council's call. Will they chose a bid on financial security? Will the emotive videos play on their decision? All will be revealed on Nov. 15 with chairman Bill Beaumont saying on Monday that each bid is "capable of hosting a superb Rugby World Cup".

Before the council meets to vote, the technical review group will analyse each bid and make their independent recommendation to World Rugby's board on Oct. 31. The board will then inform the council of their preference before they place their on Nov. 15.

Then we will find out who will be hosting the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The current favourites with one leading bookmaker are Ireland but based on today's evidence, it is going to be one almighty headache to pick one leading contender.

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