The Rugby World Cup is the showpiece for a sport that attracts millions and boasts about being a game for all shapes and sizes. But it will become a more elitist and exclusive event on Thursday 12 May, one that only rich countries will be able to host in future.
World Rugby is to confirm that Australia will host the World Cup in 2027 and the United States in 2031, with the women’s version – being held in New Zealand this year – awarded to England at a ceremony with a predetermined outcome.
The announcement will have a bitter taste in South Africa, where the lost 2023 bid still hurts. This will be made worse by the realisation that the current world rugby champions will likely not host a World Cup again.
It’s simple. The tournament is the Holy Grail of income for World Rugby and while sentimentality and romanticism may dictate that a team which has won three World Cups be in line to host it once again, the reality is that it is a cash cow – and cash cows go where the money is. South Africa isn’t that place, and the country’s last chance to host the World Cup went out the window when the 2023 bid was handed to France because of the politicking, backstabbing and money being promised to many smaller voting countries.
Rugby Africa, the continent’s governing body, voted against South Africa, making the betrayal even more hurtful but not surprising. The body has its offices in SA Rugby’s Plattekloof building in Cape Town, paid for by the latter.
Australia is effectively the only country left in the bidding for the next tournament, as the US delayed its bid to the 2031 event. Russia, the only other candidate that wanted to bid for 2027, literally blew up its chances when it invaded Ukraine. World Rugby suspended the Russian Rugby Federation and with that destroyed any outside chance the country had of hosting the tournament.
Show me the money
A cynic might say that Australia hosting the World Cup is one way for the country to pay back the immense A$14.2 million (about R160 million) loan that Rugby Australia received from World Rugby at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, to prevent it from going bankrupt. But that would probably be denied all round.
Still, with the Australian government backing the bid and guaranteeing a massive sum of money to host the tournament, it was never anything but a done deal. “All countries have worked closely with World Rugby and other key stakeholders to fulfil the requirements to achieve preferred candidate and exclusive targeted dialogue status respectively,” said World Rugby.
“Alongside the awarding of preferred candidate status to England and Australia, the World Rugby Council additionally voted to implement a series of exclusive discussions with the US in relation to Rugby World Cup 2031 hosting. As an emerging rugby market with a 10-year runway to the 2031 tournament, the US will require a unique and extended approach that will require extensive further dialogue with key stakeholders. This dialogue will take place with a view to developing the most effective hosting model for a Rugby World Cup in North America and the global game in the long term.”
If awarded the hosting rights for 2031, it will be the first time the US hosts the Rugby World Cup, while Australia last played host in 2003. The model is likely to be similar to when England hosted the 2015 World Cup and Japan 2019, giving a modicum of the second tournament going to a “developing” rugby country while underlining the financial muscle needed for any such country to host the event.
World Rugby chairperson Bill Beaumont explained the new approach to electing Word Cup hosts: “It’s more flexible and collaborative, with World Rugby working with potential hosts to optimise their World Cup proposals and align them with long-term social and economic development plans for the benefit of their communities and the future expansion of the sport.
“As a result, we are entering into an enhanced relationship with England and Australia as exclusive preferred candidates for 2025 and 2027 respectively, and the US in exclusive targeted dialogue with a view to developing the most effective hosting model.”
In other words, this was the best outcome for World Rugby. It identified who it wanted and worked with those countries to ensure the outcome didn’t embarrass them as it did last time, when South Africa was the preferred candidate but the votes went against World Rugby’s proposal.
South Africa, after all, hosted possibly the greatest Rugby World Cup – certainly the one with the most political impact – in 1995. It shone a light on the rainbow nation and gave sport one of its most fantastic moments, when then president Nelson Mandela handed Francois Pienaar the trophy.
Rian Oberholzer, who ran the 1995 World Cup bid and has decades of experience in this field, being involved in the 2010 Fifa World Cup and 2027 ICC World Cup bids too, can’t see South Africa putting together another successful bid. “I can’t talk on behalf of SA Rugby, of course, but when we won the 2023 World Cup bid and politics overturned it, there was already a massive financial commitment that the South African government had to make to ensure we had a successful bid.
“I’m not sure of the specifics of how the new bidding process works. In the last bid we did, the government had to pay for the right to stage the event. It took us a long time to get that off the line, but we got it done. I don’t think our government would ever put that sort of money in again for a major event, and without that I don’t think SA Rugby could compete commercially with European countries,” he said.
The other big sticking point is infrastructure. The next bidding process will be for the 2035 World Cup, a full 40 years after the 1995 tournament.
“Those facilities that were built in 2010,” said Oberholzer, such as Ellis Park and Loftus Versfeld, which got a facelift for the Fifa World Cup, “will be 25 years old then and will need investment to bring them in line with international standards for stadiums by then. And in the current political climate, there is no way I can see how the government can back a bid to bring a sporting event to South Africa. And I can’t see how they are going to spend money on bringing infrastructure up to the standard that such a tournament needs.”
SA Rugby president Mark Alexander agrees. “Just think about where we are at the moment as a country. I don’t want to go into that, but we first have to host the Sevens and then we can consider hosting another World Cup.”
Difficult pill to swallow
If the event was held in South Africa in 2023, the income would have outweighed the cost, especially through tax collected by the government in terms of its investment. The spin-offs, especially for tourism and hospitality, would have been massive and provided much-needed impetus at a time when the economy is waning.
“This is why it was such a difficult pill for us all to swallow when we lost the 2023 bid. We said to each other at the time, this is probably the last time we will get to bid. It will only get more and more difficult to get a successful bid over the line after that,” said Oberholzer.
“If World Rugby only followed their own rules – we had the best bid, they decided that themselves – then we would have had the 2023 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Then after that it became an election, and France in essence just offered much more money through their institutions and sponsors to the countries that needed to vote. That’s in a nutshell how we lost.”
Promises of an investigation into how votes were swayed quietly disappeared and France will host the event next year.
The European country’s money has even swayed Rugby Africa into holding its Africa Cup in France. The tournament will determine the team that qualifies for the World Cup from the continent, joining South Africa whose place is already secured. Namibia, who have qualified for the past few editions, could now be at a disadvantage. They will have to win a tournament in France against several countries, such as Morocco and Tunisia, who have players based in the European country.
France will pay all the costs for the tournament, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed in Africa that there is a desire to have a French-speaking African country represent the continent at the World Cup.
Finances are a major factor, according to Oberholzer. “After Covid as well, where will the money come from? There are so many challenges at the moment and unless you have the support of the government, you will never be able to compete with international countries who deal in euros, pounds and dollars.”