Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Ireland Rugby World Cup bid: Let's not kick once in lifetime chance into touch

The online naysayers are already talking down Ireland's bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. But Lord Coe thinks it's a runner and that's good enough for Michael Wolsey

Power play: Rory Best goes over for a try at the Aviva Stadium yesterday; and Casement, and Ravenhill, both of which would cash in on the tournament

Ireland's rugby fans dared to dream and for a time yesterday it looked like their dreams could come true. The international team's performance against the might of New Zealand was exciting, brave and, although there was no fairy-tale ending, good enough to prove that, in sport, nothing is impossible.

That's a lesson the fans should bear in mind as they ponder another dream – of seeing world cup rugby played at Ravenhill and Casement Park.

The citadels of Ulster rugby and Ulster GAA are likely venues if the bid to stage the 2023 finals is successful.

Leo Varadkar, the Republic's minister for tourism and sport, is driving the campaign with the support of the IRFU, the GAA and Stormont.

Games would be played at rugby and Gaelic grounds in Dublin, Belfast and other centres.

Already the social media naysayers are lining up to the knock the prospect.

Our infrastructure isn't good enough, the security would be impossible; the cost would be unbearable.

But they are wrong. We'll never achieve big things if we don't think big in the first place.

Sebastian Coe, who knows more about staging major sporting events than most people, has no doubt that this island boasts both the ability and the facilities to host the World Cup.

It's all about vision, he told journalists in Dublin last week.

"Most countries can demonstrate that they have the capabilities to host big events, but the reasons for wanting to do so must be clear and convincing," he said.

Lord Coe (below) helped bring the 2012 Olympics to London, because he saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to inspire young people to take up sport.

So what, he wondered, was Ireland's clear and convincing reason for wanting to stage the Rugby World Cup?

Varadkar's answer was clear enough.

He wants the tournament to "leave a legacy of unifying people on this island".

And Lord Coe found this convincing. "That's the right route for getting people behind the bid," he said.

Both men might have added "especially in Northern Ireland". For, sadly, the sort of sporting loyalties which bind countries and counties elsewhere are almost unknown to us.

The GAA is trying to change things, but the appeal of its sports remains confined almost entirely to one side of our divided community. Club soccer is, by its very nature, a divisive thing.

And, in spite of the best efforts of the IFA, the Northern Ireland international team do not unite us. Not everyone wants to see them win and, let's face it, some people are quite happy to see them lose.

Rugby is the only major sport which draws support from all sides of the community. Not quite in equal numbers, perhaps, but that's hardly surprising, given that its roots were once firmly planted in Protestant schools.

Ulster rugby is drawing good, happy, family crowds to Ravenhill and, even among those who do not support the team, I have heard no-one wish it ill.

The same can be said for the Ireland rugby team, which has at least the tacit support of both unionist and nationalist communities, even those who care little for the sport itself.

World Cup games at Ravenhill and Casement Park would bolster rugby's unifying influence. They are a prospect sure to fill seats and get everyone excited. They would help break not only sectarian barriers, but also the class barrier to which rugby is still prone.

Ravenhill's welcome for Anto Finnegan's plan for a charity Gaelic football match there is another exciting step in the right direction. The one unfortunate aspect is that soccer – our third major sport – seems likely to miss out on this goodwill bonanza.

There are political difficulties about the use of soccer stadiums for other sports, but also a very practical one: their pitches are not the correct size for rugby or GAA.

There is still time to remedy this at the new Windsor Park (and the new Oval, maybe). Even if the grounds are not used for the Rugby World Cup, they would benefit from having a pitch capable of hosting other sports. I wonder what odds Paddy Power would offer on rugby at the Oval – or a GAA challenge match at Windsor?

And, while we're on the subject of amazing sporting dreams, here's another: one of the world's biggest golf tournaments could be played at Royal Portrush. Organisers of the PGA of America are pondering a move to take the event out of the US and, with a bit of prompting from Rory McIlroy and native son Graeme McDowell, the Co Antrim course is in with a serious chance of beating Asia's finest to the honour.

Again, the online naysayers are out in force, keen to kill the idea before it gets off the ground. Let them listen to Lord Coe: "It's all about the vision... you have to have vision."

Or, as Oscar Hammerstein – fortuitously, a keen sportsman – so memorably put it: "You've got to have a dream. If you don't have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?"

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