Liam Morgan

It is fair to say eyebrows were raised when the Rugby World Cup Limited (RWCL) Board unanimously recommended South Africa to host the 2023 edition of the event earlier this week.

Surprise and shock were abundant when the decision was announced following the evaluation of bids from South Africa, Ireland and France.

After all, this is a country which was unceremoniously stripped of hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games after Durban failed to meet several financial deadlines and guarantees.

This is a country that many thought would, for several reasons, not meet one of the evaluation report's key requirements, which detailed how each bidding nation must have "an enabling environment of political and financial stability".

Not only did South Africa tick that particular box, but the nation adhered to the report's criteria more than the others.

In the comparative scores of the three candidates, South Africa received 78.97 per cent, while France were given 75.88 per cent. Ireland, considered the favourites in many quarters, scored 72.25 per cent.

It was a result few expected; certainly not under-fire French Rugby Federation (FFR) President Bernard Laporte, who dismissed the report as "nonsense" and described some of the evaluation's findings as "crazy".

These comments, unsurprisingly, have not gone down well with World Rugby. In a statement released this afternoon, the governing body said the views of Laporte - who was hauled in front of French Sports Minister Laura Flessel in September following accusations of mismanagement - were "inaccurate and unfounded".

"World Rugby is concerned by the reported comments by host candidates regarding the Rugby World Cup 2023 host selection process and recommendation, and in particular those attributed to the FFR," read the statement.

"While disappointment and high-emotion following the announcement of a recommendation is understandable, such comments are both unfounded and inaccurate.

"We will be raising our concerns on this matter with the FFR and look forward to the World Rugby Council appointing the Rugby World Cup 2023 host on 15 November with a clear, comprehensive and objective recommendation to consider."

The Irish have had their say, too, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar implicitly criticised South Africa’s bid by making a not-so-subtle dig at the empty stadiums which were apparent when the country became the first from the continent to stage the FIFA World Cup back in 2010.

"What we want is a tournament where people see matches in full stadiums in the middle of rugby communities in our cities rather than in big soccer stadiums on the outskirts of our cities that would be half-empty," he said.

"That is part of the case we will be making to the rugby unions."

The case both France and Ireland should also be making, however, is that World Rugby are preparing to take their flagship tournament to a country which was not financially committed enough to bringing the Commonwealth Games to Africa for the first time.

A refusal from the South African Government to support the 2022 event in Durban gave the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) little choice but to seek an alternative host and the hosting rights were forcibly relinquished from the city back in March.

It dealt a considerable blow to the CGF and the entire Movement. Yet you never got the sense that the feeling was mutual over in South Africa.

Former Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula was firmly behind South Africa's bid despite initially banning them from bidding ©Getty Images
Former Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula was firmly behind South Africa's bid despite initially banning them from bidding ©Getty Images

Writers and journalists alike condemned the catastrophe. One said that they had not lost the Games but they had in fact thrown them away, while adding that it was one of the most embarrassing moments of the post-1994 era.

But the reaction from the Government was minimal, save for then Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula expressing his "disappointment" at the CGF’s decision.

By contrast, the Government - despite initially banning sports such as rugby from bidding for major events over a perceived lack of opportunities given to black players last year, a move which was only overturned in May 2017 - were fully behind the bid for the Rugby World Cup.

Clearly, South Africa were more interested in the World Cup than the Commonwealth Games and with the well-documented financial issues in the region, it would have been impossible for the country to do both.

Logistically, holding a World Cup is far easier than a Commonwealth Games. There is not the need for as much infrastructure and South Africa would not be required to build as many new venues as they would for the multi-sport event.

It also goes without saying that rugby union has a strong heritage in the nation. Not only is it one of the country’s most successful sports but it also became a symbol for a new, improved South Africa post-Apartheid when the Rugby World Cup was held there back in 1995.

I was only three at the time of the 1995 tournament but even my generation are aware of its significance. It was the first international sporting event of any kind that South Africa participated in following the end of the abhorrent apartheid regime.

The 1995 event, the third edition of the Rugby World Cup, also marked the first at which South Africa competed. In a fairytale ending which even scriptwriters would not have believed - they would be forced to act several years later when the story of the tournament was depicted in the Academy Award-nominated film Invictus - South Africa claimed a dramatic 15-12 win over the indomitable, unbeatable team from New Zealand to win it.

What followed was the famous image of a black man in former President and humanitarian icon Nelson Mandela, who served 27 years behind bars and fought against apartheid, handing over the trophy to a white man in South Africa captain Francois Pienaar.

Rarely does sport conjure such pure beauty as that moment, one that rugby fans and even those who do not follow sport will struggle to forget.

South Africa competed in its first international sporting event after apartheid when the country hosted the 1995 World Cup ©Getty Images
South Africa competed in its first international sporting event after apartheid when the country hosted the 1995 World Cup ©Getty Images

South Africa were clearly keen to harness those memories to stage a similarly-superb competition six years from now. South Africa Rugby Union chief executive Jurie Roux said as much when he admitted the "opportunity to recapture just some of the spirit of 1995 has been an obsession with us".

Twenty-two years on from the World Cup in South Africa and there are plenty of people in the country who have not reaped the benefits they thought they might, however.

It is for that reason and others that scepticism and concern has become apparent among fans of the sport in question following the RWLC recommendation.

It is not difficult to see why.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, for example, was littered with allegations of corruption and wrongdoing. It was claimed that then South African President Thabo Mbeki had struck a $10 million (£7.6 million/€8.6 million) deal with disgraced former FIFA head Sepp Blatter which was effectively a bribe for the country to host the tournament.

According to prosecutors back in June 2015, much of this money was diverted into the pockets of infamous FIFA official Jack Warner, whose alleged rap sheet of corruption within the sport is longer than your arm. It is a claim South Africa have never quite been able to shirk, despite repeated denials over the years.

Then you return to familiar concerns. Will South Africa be able to cope financially? Is their expected revenue of £160 million ($211 million/€182 million), £40 million ($52 million/€45 million) more than they were asked to provide, realistic? Will the required upgrades to stadiums and other essential work be completed on time?

World Rugby launched a staunch defence of their report following strong criticism from France ©Getty Images
World Rugby launched a staunch defence of their report following strong criticism from France ©Getty Images

The answers to these questions, and others, are partly why the RWLC's recommendation sparked the response it did.

It may not be a "nonsense" and as "crazy" as Laporte might think, but it is certainly a sizeable gamble.

Now it is up to the World Rugby Council to decide later this month whether they agree with the RWLC or whether they share the same concerns as everyone else.