Winning the right to host the 2023 World Cup would give South African rugby a much-needed boost, writes JON CARDINELLI.
It’s been more than 22 years since South Africa hosted the World Cup; more than two decades since Joel Stransky kicked the winning drop goal in the final against the All Blacks. Memories of that tournament, however, are still very fresh in Stransky’s mind.
‘The 1995 World Cup was unique,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I’ve been to a few World Cups since then and none of them have compared to that first one on African soil.
‘South Africa was a young democracy in 1995. As players, we got to see first-hand what president Nelson Mandela was doing behind the scenes. It was an amazing journey. We were an almost completely white team, but by the end of the tournament the whole country was behind us. The supporter base had changed.
‘You saw the taxis waving their Bok flags proudly. You got to experience a large Afrikaans contingent chanting “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!” in the final.
‘Sport is used to facilitate change around the world. It united our nation,’ he says, before adopting a more sombre tone. ‘When one considers the challenges facing this country today, one is inclined to say that we could use that kind of good-news story again. These are turbulent times. We could use a boost come the 2023 World Cup bid announcement.’
South African rugby is not in great shape. It’s been eight years since the Springboks won a major tournament and seven since a South African team won the Super Rugby trophy. More recently, the Boks suffered their worst Test defeat in 126 years when they went down 57-0 to the All Blacks in Albany.
All that said, SA Rugby believes the country has what it takes to stage another ‘unique’ global tournament. Winning the right to host the 2023 World Cup will have significant financial benefits for South Africa. A successful bid could also boost the country’s rugby structures in the middle and long term.
South Africa, France and Ireland submitted their respective bids to the World Rugby council in London on 25 September. All three bids will be reviewed by a specialist technical review group, evaluated against weighted criteria and feature independent economic, financial and commercial assessments by expert advisors. A recommendation will then be made by the World Cup board on 31 October before the council votes to select the host union on 15 November.
The 2011 World Cup in New Zealand did not live up to World Rugby’s financial expectations. This factored into the decision to stage the subsequent tournament in the United Kingdom or Europe. The powers that be got what they wanted, as the 2015 World Cup in England proved to be the greatest commercial success in the history of the competition.
Already there are fears that the 2019 World Cup in Japan will fail to surpass, or even meet, the standards set by the 2015 tournament. As a result, the 2023 tournament will need to be staged in a country that can guarantee a substantial financial return.
SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux believes South Africa has what it takes to meet all of World Rugby’s requirements.
‘South Africa ticks every box of the financial, commercial and logistical requirements, but we go way beyond the minimum requirements to set us apart as a candidate,’ Roux said at the presentation in London. ‘We were asked to provide a minimum guarantee of £120-million [R2.1-billion], but with unqualified support from our government we are offering an extra £40-million [R722-million].
‘We were asked to provide eight venues, the smallest of which must have a minimum capacity of 15 000, but we offer eight venues – purpose-built for rugby and requiring no upgrading – with the smallest one offering a fully seated capacity of 43 500. And we will host the largest-ever Rugby World Cup final with 87 436 fans at the National Stadium in Johannesburg. Our stadiums allow us to place more tickets on sale than ever before; a South African Rugby World Cup would make available 2.9-million seats – 400 000 more than the highly successful England 2015 tournament.
‘Player performance will be optimal, given the ideal playing conditions, world-class match venues and training facilities and a match schedule with low travel impact. Eighty-five percent of pool matches will be played at a team’s home base; the longest trip to a training venue will be 17 minutes.’
Roux also highlighted South Africa’s tourist destinations and favourable exchange rate.
SA Rugby’s video presentation included images of the 1995 tournament, as well as slogans such as ‘Heed the call. Come to the birthplace of humankind. Where it all comes together. Where rugby is No 1.’ This closed with the confident words: ‘Ready Already.’
Deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, who led the delegation in London, played on the spiritual success of the 1995 World Cup. If all goes to plan, history will repeat itself in 2023, at least in the sense of fan experience and local involvement.
‘In 1995, the World Cup cemented the bonds between our diverse people,’ Ramaphosa said. ‘In 2023, we hope to use the World Cup to inspire and unite not only South Africans, but the global community of nations. In a world facing the threat of polarisation, intolerance and indifference, South Africa is best poised to demonstrate that rugby can break barriers, create hope and unite humanity. The people and government of South Africa are therefore wholeheartedly behind SA Rugby’s bid. We have proven we can deliver.’
France will host the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. They hosted the World Cup as recently as 2007 and are considered the dark horses in the 2023 race.
Nevertheless, they have gone to extreme lengths to state their case. In late September, bid director Claude Atcher told the Guardian that Test rugby will die if France did not host the 2023 World Cup.
French Rugby Federation president Bernard Laporte took this further in his presentation to World Rugby on 25 September. Laporte believes that a successful bid for the 2023 tournament will curb excessive spending by Top 14 clubs. This, in turn, will lead to fewer Australian, New Zealand and South African players leaving their home countries to play in France and ultimately ensure that Test rugby remains competitive.
Even more eyebrows were raised, especially in New Zealand, when the sons of the late All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu were included as part of France’s bid presentation. As one Irish writer said, ‘[It] did not seem in the best of taste.’
Ireland have made much of their ability to tap into the diaspora of 70-million and especially the 40-million of Irish descent in North America. Sixty-two thousand people attended the Test between Ireland and New Zealand in Chicago last year.
IRFU CEO Philip Browne feels his country’s bid is financially more sound than those of France or South Africa.
‘It’s about the quality of the money,’ he said. ‘There is no risk attached. World Rugby know from our bid exactly what they are going to generate.’
Ireland’s video presentation featured rock icon Bono addressing a sold-out crowd at Croke Park, the proposed venue for the World Cup final.
‘All those in favour of hosting the 2023 Rugby World Cup? Motion passed,’ Bono concluded after the crowd roared its approval.
There are many in South Africa, however, who remain just as confident in this country’s ability to host a World Cup tournament to remember.
‘I’ll never forget that experience of 1995, of seeing how sport has the power to bring people from all walks of life together and unite behind a common cause,’ says former Bok wing Chester Williams. ‘There is no reason why we can’t see that happen again.’
England suffered the ultimate embarrassment when they failed to qualify for the playoffs of their home tournament in 2015. SA Rugby has much to do if its going to build a Bok team that can win the World Cup in 2023.
‘All the facilities are in place when you consider what was done ahead of the 2010 Fifa World Cup,’ notes Stransky. ‘What should be of more concern over the next six years or so is the structures of South African rugby. You look back at some of the recent results and it’s clear that a change is needed sooner rather than later.
‘We’ve got to address that at all levels of the game. We’ve got to get it right at grassroots level. We have to ensure that we have a strong coaching set-up and that we are bringing players through who are physically and mentally tough. Most of all, we need to drive the agenda of winning. We’ve lost that a bit in recent years.
‘There will be significant financial benefits from hosting a World Cup and hopefully that money will be invested back into South African rugby,’ adds Stransky. ‘If you talk about the next step, you’re talking about building grassroots facilities and putting plans in place to maintain them.
‘That will be the difference. I’ve heard that 90% of the fields that were put in place in 2010 are nothing more than gravel patches today. If we get the 2023 World Cup, we can’t allow rugby to follow the same route.’
– This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine