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Rugby World Cup

Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 July, 2009, 12:00am

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History has given us many instances in which people and values have been betrayed for financial gain. But the International Rugby Board (IRB) must take the cake for its '30 pieces of silver' deed, which smacks of duplicity.

On Tuesday, the IRB executive council will gather in Dublin to select the host unions for the 2015 and 2019 World Cups. It's effectively a fait accompli, for the decision has already been made with England getting the 2015 tournament and Japan the 2019 edition.

It's a heartbreaking decision, for Hong Kong too, which had been promised six games by Japan if it won the right to the 2015 tournament. But more of that later.

The recommendation that England should once again host the tournament was made by Rugby World Cup Limited (RWCL) which, in a 74-page submission this month, advised the IRB that what matters most is money - hence the counsel that England should get 2015. Why it took 74 pages to come to that conclusion is unfathomable. All RWCL - which, by the way, is headed by IRB president Bernard Lapasset - needed to do was just scrawl in big letters across one page M-O-N-E-Y.

While a guilt-ridden Judas at least had the shame to throw away his 30 pieces of silver after betraying Jesus, don't expect the IRB to be so contrite. It will grab all the lucre for itself - and England as host will provide them with the most money.

That is the sad fact behind the RWCL recommendation. England will undoubtedly be a bigger financial success than Japan. After the mistake of handing the next World Cup - in 2011 - to New Zealand, where it is expected to make a loss, the IRB was backed into a corner and had no option but to ensure the 2015 tournament was a coffer-replenishing money-spinner.

The IRB says all profits from the World Cup will be ploughed back into the development of the game worldwide. As the world's third-largest sporting event - behind the Olympics and the soccer World Cup - the rugby World Cup is the driving force behind the global development of the game. It is estimated the commercial success of the 2015 tournament - if held in England, which is a major rugby market - will provide the IRB with the platform to invest ?50 million (HK$1.9 billion) across all 116 member unions in the form of annual grants and a strategic investment programme designed to increase the game's competitiveness.

On the surface, it is all for a noble cause. But the reality is that the IRB has for far too long neglected the rest of the world and is now forced to play catch-up rugby. A better way to develop the game would have been to take its flagship tournament to Asia - the fastest growth area. The World Cup has been going on since 1987 and it has been a closed shop in terms of competitiveness as well as host nations. Unlike its soccer cousins, in rugby we rarely see a minnow felling a giant.

We will never see a Cameroon-beats-France scenario or South Korea going all the way to the semi-finals.

While soccer has already taken the World Cup to Asia in 2002 and takes it to Africa next year - both continents that are traditionally not giants of the game - rugby is still twiddling its thumbs, ensconced in conformity.

The IRB had a golden chance to push the boundaries when the 2011 hosting rights were up for grabs. But being insular, the council decided New Zealand should be hosts - a decision that it now regrets.

You might think it would have learned its lesson. But instead, we see history repeating itself. Rather than taking the opportunity to globalise the game - and not just through handouts - the RWCL has stayed true to its conservative outlook and gone with England.

Having to wait until 2019 is a travesty. If you take Japan's losing bid for 2011 into account, it means the IRB has sacrificed almost 10 years of making the game global on the altar of greed.

Japanese officials have been polite and say they don't mind having to wait until 2019. They couldn't say anything else. But behind the polite facade, they will be seething at having to wait again.

Hong Kong officials have followed Japan's example. Trevor Gregory, chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, said while he was sorry to see Japan miss out on 2015, he was relieved a promise had been made for 2019.

'At least it is now cast in stone the World Cup will come to Japan and Asia in 2019,' said Gregory.

That is unless the IRB executive council has the guts to overlook the RWCL's recommendations and vote for Japan to host the 2015 and England for 2019. We can only dream.

If there is a silver lining in all this it must be that, by 2019, Hong Kong should have a new stadium in place - hopefully with more changing rooms than the outdated one at So Kon Po.

The government has promised to build a sports hub at Kai Tak by 2018. If that is in place, the HKRFU will have the luxury of two 40,000-seater stadiums - presuming the current one is not torn down and the land given to property developers - when the 2019 World Cup rolls along.

But that's way in the future. We are lucky if we know what will happen next week, let alone in the next 10 years. But one thing we are certain of - rugby will continue to be a game for the elite.