France 2023: the right choice for the Rugby World Cup?

By James Beringer

France will host the 2023 World Cup. At last, after six years of campaigning, we now have the joy of six years of waiting.

This is the kind of underwhelming response such a predictable outcome inevitably provokes. After the bookies made Ireland the favourites and World Rugby gave South Africa the nod, the stage seemed set for an epic showdown on the 15th November to decide the fate of the tournament.

As it turns out, the French had spent their time assembling a solid if unspectacular bid, accompanied by boatloads of cash that I am sure played no part in any representatives’ decisions when the time came to put pen to ballot paper.

In a fine display of horseshoe theory, the decision to award the French bid the tournament – henceforth known as the Safe Bet – was so predictable that no-one actually expected it.

When considered in a purely logical, sterile, emotionless, rational and clinical manner, the Safe Bet was obviously the best one. The country is ideally located in Central Europe, possesses fantastic stadiums in some of the world’s best tourist destinations (who doesn’t want to go to an international tournament in Nice), and doesn’t have any of the security risks associated with South Africa.

Furthermore, France have demonstrated their ability to host major sporting events – a factor which surely played a key part in securing the right to host the tournament over the inexperienced Irish bid. Euro 2016 was a fantastic tournament and Lyon’s hosting of the European Rugby Cup finals was one of the best sporting events I have ever attended in terms of its organisation (especially after some of the dire problems at the 2015 World Cup – the words ‘Cardiff Station’ now provoke physical and psychological reactions in my body).

Ireland’s bid, as much it pains me to say it, was fuelled by emotion and craic (if you like either of those things then the bid was unparalleled). In fact, World Rugby highlighted this in their report, stating that the Irish bid was both exciting and innovative.

That approach works when you are getting average people onside, but eventually, it has to give way to more practical considerations. Simply put, Ireland’s infrastructure and accommodation plan was clearly not up to the task of hosting such a largescale event – a point emphasized by the disproportionate size of stadiums in small towns and villages.

Circulating the World Cup around a small group of select countries seems regressive and difficult to support

The MacHale Park stadium in Castlebar can accommodate 38,000 people, but the town itself has a population of only 10,000. Killarney’s Fitzgerald stadium has an even larger capacity of 43,180 for a town of 14,000 people. I appreciate the country is small and supporters based in Dublin or Belfast could feasibly drive to these places, but this would have exacerbated the problem by putting a strain on roads and public transport.

So, why am I so underwhelmed given the obvious superiority of the French bid? It boils down to three reasons.

The first is, of course, the money issue. This formed a key part of the infamous evaluation report (although considering that South Africa ‘won’ that stage of the process, its result is somewhat useless), and France unsurprisingly offered the biggest paycheck.

It makes me a little uneasy that decisions can be based on this. Clearly, the tournament is a business and there are financial concerns, but surely sometimes risks should be taken. It seems unlikely that New Zealand’s bid for the 2011 World Cup would have been successful if the current criteria had been applied, and that tournament was considered a fantastic success.

I was also unimpressed with the Safe Bet’s shameless use of Jonah Lomu to further their cause. Realising their bid lacked any form of emotional depth or human connection, the FRU wheeled out the two children of the late All Black legend on the knee of Sebastien Chabal to claim that Lomu would have wanted the World Cup to be held in France.

This was based on some passing remarks Lomu made about French cuisine while he was still alive, and which in no way amounted to any form of endorsement whatsoever. It was a bizarre promotional idea which reeked of desperation, lacked any form of tact or decency, and displayed a complete lack of moral awareness – did no-one, at any point, wonder if twisting the comments of a dead person to support their cause was a good idea?

But the biggest problem is the conservatism and lack of big picture thinking that seemed to go into the decision.

France last hosted the tournament in 2007 – a highly successful tournament but still a fairly recent one. They have subsequently hosted the European Championships and will host the Summer Olympics in 2024.

The truth of the matter is all three bids were extraordinary, and each country would have put on an amazing show for the rugby community

Japan, while a calculated risk for a rugby tournament (the sport enjoys a solid fan base in Japan and Australia flanker David Pocock is currently plying his trade in their domestic league, while they also have a Super Rugby representative in the Sunwolves) will also host the 2020 Olympics and hosted the football World Cup in 2002. Is anyone else seeing a pattern here?

What I liked the most about the Irish bid was that it would have been unprecedented. The slogan of a tiny island throwing its arms open to the world and welcoming them in was a powerful one which was difficult not to get behind, especially with Liam Neeson’s narration in the promotional video.

Circulating the World Cup around a small group of select countries seems regressive and difficult to support. Hopefully, World Rugby will take this to heart and look to riskier alternatives in the future. Italy, the US (even if they will host the Olympics in 2028), Canada (who broke their rugby attendance record last week), or perhaps even Spain (depending on how the Bilbao finals go in May, this isn’t outside the realms of possibility) would be interesting candidates for the 2027 edition.

All things considered, however, I am perhaps a little too critical of World Rugby’s decision. The truth of the matter is all three bids were extraordinary, and each country would have put on an amazing show for the rugby community.

En tant que francophone je voudrais terminer en disant ‘Chapeau, et bonne chance’. S’il y a un pays qui est capable de me surprendre, c’est surement la France!

Photograph: Stewart Baird via Wikimedia Commons

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