Ravenhill and Casement Park part of 2023 Rugby World Cup bid
Ulster Rugby citadel Ravenhill and Belfast GAA headquarters Casement Park will be ace cards in an ambitious Irish bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
The bid to host rugby's showpiece occasion in 10 years time is expected to be approved later today when Leo Varadkar, the Republic's Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, asks for his cabinet colleagues' approval in going for gold.
The two Belfast venues will be key components along with Dublin's Aviva stadium, Croke Park and Munster's Thomond Park as well as GAA grounds in Cork, Limerick, Killarney and Galway, the game's rulers having said they would have no issue, in principal, with their showcases being added to the bid.
Casement will qualify with work due to begin on a 38,000 capacity redevelopment while, across the city, Ravenhill is more than halfway towards an upgrade to 18,000.
Ulster Rugby's Director of Rugby, David Humphreys (right), told the Belfast Telegraph: "I think every rugby fan in Ireland is hugely excited about the prospect of a World Cup on this island. It would be a massive boost to the sport here and with the redevelopment of Ravenhill nearing completion we know that Belfast would be in line to host some of the tournament's top matches."
The complete rebuild of Ravenhill is on target and within budget. Already three of the stadium's four sides are operational, meaning that all that remains to be done is completion of a replacement for the old grandstand.
Historically, there is a precedent of Ravenhill as a Rugby World Cup venue, Japan defeating Zimbabwe 52-8 there in a Pool game in October 1991 when England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France were joint hosts
Ireland's claim has a hugely significant backer in former New Zealand captain and 1987 World Cup winner Sean Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick – who went on to play in two further World Cups, captaining his country in the 1995 tournament in South Africa – has no doubt that Ireland would be great hosts.
"Ireland has got the people and the passion to host a World Cup," he said. "New Zealand was told they didn't have the stadiums, but we made it work and I'm sure Ireland has good stadiums."
Stressing the similarities between the two countries, he added: "I think it's a fantastic idea. People said New Zealand couldn't host a World Cup and we put on a fantastic tournament. But in saying that, everyone got behind it. That was important."
As for the boost it could give things beyond rugby, Fitzpatrick's recollection of the World Cup two years ago in his homeland was: "It was phenomenal what it did for the country in terms of tourism. But the legacy of it means we can now hold other events."
Fellow-hooker and rugby icon, Ireland's Keith Wood, expressed his support for the bid, though he admitted that a lot would need to happen before hosting the World Cup.
"The IRFU absolutely wouldn't be able to do it on their own. It can't be an ego thing; it has to be right for Ireland," he said.
"If something like the Rugby World Cup coming to Ireland could be enough of an income generator that we need, it has to stack up. And we need as much inward tourism investment as we can get; we have to aim for big things."
Wood's hope is that the governing bodies of country's major sporting codes can come together and formulate a plan that will put the country in the spotlight.
"I think the GAA hurdle is over," Wood said. "I said it at the time when Croke Park opened for rugby that it put Ireland's best foot forward.
"It's a world-class stadium and it needs to be seen in the world media and it was that day against England. That was fantastic for everyone. It's good for the GAA, it's good for sport and it's good for the country.".