In 2017, France were named the hosts of the next Rugby World Cup, despite an independent evaluation recommending South Africa. Here is what happened behind the scenes of that big decision, according to the French bid team

How France won the RWC 2023 vote

IT LOOKED like it was in the bag.

On 31 October 2017, the Rugby World Cup Limited (RWCL) Board unanimously recommended that South Africa should host Rugby World Cup 2023. A 139-page audit surmised that the Rainbow Nation should be chosen ahead of fellow bidders France and Ireland. The call came 15 days before the decisive vote by 39 nations on the World Rugby Council, in London.

At the time, World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said: “The comprehensive and independently scrutinised evaluation reaffirmed that we have three exceptional bids but it also identified South Africa as a clear leader.”

In the wake of the anouncement, the other two bidding parties were bullish, but South African chief executive Jurie Roux firmly stated: “We trust now that the World Rugby Council will follow through by voting to confirm what the experts have identified: that a South African Rugby World Cup in 2023 is the best result for rugby.”

But just over a fortnight later, it was the French contingent fist pumping, not the South Africans.

What happened?

All over social media, there was talk of a heist; proclamations of back-door bartering for votes. Many were appalled that after a recommendation was made public, the votes were secret.

Some reported that agreements had been sewn up long before any independent recommendation was posted. After Ireland finished with a mere eight votes, IRFU boss Philip Browne said: “It’s very disappointing. It was particularly disappointing that Scotland and Wales didn’t support their nearest neighbours.” It is believed Wales supported South Africa and Scotland voted for France – a subject that has been raised in the years since.

At the time, Mark Alexander, president of SA Rugby also said: “We are bitterly disappointed at this decision and would like to apologise to the people and government of South Africa for raising their hopes.”

In the week leading up to the final of Rugby World Cup 2019, we had a chance to sit with Claude Atcher, the CEO of France 2023, to ask what they did in the days following that public recommendation.

“To answer the question I need to come back to 31 October,” Atcher tells Rugby World, while sitting in the bar of the ANA Intercontinental hotel in Tokyo. “When we opened the website, we saw South Africa first, France in second, Ireland third.

“I think we spent two hours really trying to understand why. And just after these two hours, we decided to push, to try to demonstrate that the recommendation was not totally complete, in terms of analysis.

“So we spent all the night working on a paper that we sent to all unions, all the members, to explain that when the recommendation said South Africa is more secure than France… I’m not saying that this is wrong, just that with defence, the subjects that they have compared are not the same. Because with France they have compared the level of risk from terrorists but not the number of criminal acts each day in South Africa.”

How France won the RWC 2023 vote

The man in charge: Claude Atcher, CEO of France 2023 (Getty Images)

That security would be the focus straight out of the gates is only the first strand of things. The second could be understood even before the two-week window leading to the vote opened.

In the flurry of coverage that all three bidding teams put themselves up for ahead of the recommendation, Atcher talked of helping to prevent the “death of world rugby”. France obviously had more financial clout in such a battle, it was asserted.

Flashback: The race to host RWC 2023

There were other superficial tactics used – Jonah Lomu’s children joined former Les Bleus star Sebastien Chabal for part of the bid. It was a crass visual, although all three bidders made use of many different emotional devices and optics in their campaigns.

It was the issue of money that we all kept coming back to, though.

Explaining further, Atcher tells us: “Secondly, I think that we began to understand that we could win, two or three days before (the vote).

“I think that on the 31 October it was the analysis of the technical, not political. When you discuss with political people, they said, ‘How is it possible to miss the opportunity for all unions (to make around £65m to £80 more)?’ That was the difference between the proposals of the French bid and the South African and Ireland bids. How is it possible?”

Atcher offers more insight on this when we ask if the bid team had to work harder than the months before, in the wake of World Rugby labelling South Africa’s the number one bid.

He tells us: “Honestly yes and no because we had travelled around the world and we met with 17 unions, and we began to talk and to explain. I think a lot of people decided the importance, before the recommendation. And they don’t change (their mind).

“I don’t think that the French bid is just to do with money. But it was really an important subject. I think that I explained it in one interview one month before (the decision) with Stephen Jones: ‘Be careful – rugby is not in a good situation.’

“And today (on the week of the World Cup final), it’s likely not exactly the same, but part of it is the risk to world rugby, globally – not World Rugby, but the unions. You have a lot of (parties) with financial issues. Rugby needs money. And the French bid proposed more money than the other bids. And the Rugby World Cup (makes) 90% of the income of World Rugby.”

Atcher says he does not have all the answers but he keeps returning to the point that the World Cup funds the global game. For him – and he reiterates “it’s just my personal opinion” but adds that he has been open with World Rugby about this – the World Cup could be marketed and promoted much better.

How France won the RWC 2023 vote

What all the fuss is about: The Webb Ellis trophy (Getty Images)

According to the administrator, it is time for a change. He explains that World Rugby went from being a regulating body to simultaneously regulating and promoting the game as the sport modernised. He would like to see a separation of powers and for the model to change.

Again these would be big political shifts. He says the ticketing, merchandising and hospitality performance in Japan was a positive turn-up. Some did not believe Japan would deliver the profits it did. France are even more optimistic.

Judging by how the vote went in 2017 – and with even more financial uncertainty in the global game today – most will be praying Atcher is right to forecast bigger cash-ins.

The draw for the 2023 World Cup is set to take place in November of this year. It remains to be seen if there will be any meaningful Test rugby between now and then.

The April issue of Rugby World magazine – focusing on a new generation of Six Nations stars – is out now.

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