Our recent sporting successes can propel us on to better things socially and politically
| Sunday Independent | 20th November 2016 | Shane Ross
The battle to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup — the William Webb Ellis trophy — is being hotly contested by Ireland.
Martin McGuinness mellows at the mention of it. Arlene Foster follows it. So do Enda Kenny and Frances Fitzgerald. Former Labour Tanaiste Dick Spring mastered it. Last week Northern politicians crossed the sectarian divide to praise it. In Armagh and Dublin sovereign governments promised to fund it jointly. Men play it. Women play it.
No, it is neither cricket nor Gaelic football. The game of rugby is uniting Ireland. As a schoolboy, at the very English Rugby public school, every day of my life I passed a plaque commemorating William Webb Ellis, the renowned inventor of rugby football.
In 1823, according to the script on the stone embedded in the wall beside the pitch , Webb Ellis “with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, picked up the ball in his arms and ran with it”.
As schoolboys we often wondered if Webb Ellis was a mythical rugbeian – if the story of his exploit was a mere marketing tool to justify the high fees at Rugby school. If he was, he was a genius.
Exactly 200 later the Webb Ellis brand is taking Ireland by storm. The battle to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup – the William Webb Ellis trophy – is being hotly contested by Ireland. We are one of the last three bidders standing, with only France and South Africa remaining in our way.
Last Tuesday the island’s two governments launched Ireland’s bid in Dublin’s magnificent Aviva Stadium. As Minister for Sport, I was privileged to share the podium with Sinn Fein’s McGuinness, Simon Hamilton of the DUP, Enda Kenny, Dick Spring and Frances Fitzgerald.
In a slightly overboard comment, I remarked that it was a tribute to the great game of rugby that politicians like me can sit on a common platform with others whom I might once have happily sent to Mars on a one-way ticket, in the name of rugby football. The sentiment is undoubtedly mutual.
Rugby is bringing strange bedfellows together. Brexit may separate us further from our Northern brethren but if we land the Rugby World Cup tournament for Ireland, it could prove the biggest commercial coup in the island’s history. Ireland, North and South, is uniting to pay the costs of the tournament. The Republic will pay 85pc while Northern Ireland will pay 15pc. We in this part of the island will provide the bulk of the stadia. The potential returns are mind-boggling.
The symbolism is staggering. You could hardly find two stadia with more contrasting histories than south Dublin’s Royal Dublin Society and north of the Liffey’s Croke Park. The RDS, a traditional haven for Ireland’s upper crust, is entering a joint venture with Croke Park, the people’s sporting mecca. Other stadia included in the Rugby World Cup bid are the GAA’s finest and best, Cork’s Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Belfast’s Kingspan Stadium, Derry’s Celtic Park and, hopefully, Belfast’s Casement Park.
The GAA is playing a noble role in generously offering pitches to a game that it might once have considered the creation of a foreigner like Webb Ellis. Thanks to the enlightened attitudes of today’s sporting leaders, North and South, those days are a distant memory.
The bid could not have come at a better moment. Ireland stands at a sporting pinnacle. Just two weeks ago we beat the All Blacks in Chicago, attracting a record crowd for a rugby match in the US. Irish rugby history was made in America. The world took note.
Only one week ago, not unexpectedly, our somewhat weakened Irish rugby team beat Canada in the Aviva. The surprise was not the result, but the numbers in attendance. There was no spare seat in the ground. The momentum from the tantalising victory in the US had carried over to a lesser match in Dublin.
And at the very moment that we were beating Canada at rugby in the Aviva, over a thousand miles away in Vienna, our soccer team was pulling off a shock victory over Austria. Martin O’Neill’s Irish boys won three points in an away game. Martin’s men shot to the top of their group, suddenly looking likely qualifiers for another World Cup, this time, in football, in Moscow, in 2018.
Today, wherever there is a World Cup, there is Ireland in hot pursuit. Already we are destined to host the Women’s Rugby World Cup next year at stadia all over Ireland. In the face of the divisive Brexit, ambitions that we may be able to unite our separate, but successful, soccer teams have been revived.
The mood in the Aviva at Tuesday’s launch was one of confidence that we were unstoppable. The celebration of Irish sport continued into the North-South Ministerial Council in Armagh on Friday. Both Arlene Foster, Martin McGuinness and I – as Sports Minister – repeated our support for the rugby project in a political forum. The bid is snowballing.
We are now embarking on a year-long crusade to convince World Rugby that we deserve the accolade. The winner will be announced in November 2017.
Our words are not just lip service. The bid is not a risk free adventure. The tournament fee of €120m has been guaranteed by both governments while other risks of €200m have again been underwritten. We expect any expenditure on stadia and other expenses will be repaid in spades by packed houses, huge tourism benefits and global reputational rewards.
If the UK’s experience as the host country in 2015 is any guide, our stadia will be packed with over 95pc occupancy. The sports division of my department has done the sums. The Cabinet has passed the project with enthusiasm.
The lead taken by rugby has proved infectious. On Thursday I was back in the Aviva launching another sports initiative with Ellen Keane, the 21-year-old Paralympic bronze medallist heroine, Martin O’Neill and Minister of State for Tourism and Sport Patrick O’Donovan.
This time we were building on the success of our Paralympian heroes, plus rugby, plus soccer. We were launching a national sports consultation to include the whole nation in a vision for Irish sport in the next decade. Irish sport is lifting Irish politics. Not only are our fans and players far more important ambassadors for Ireland than any politician, but the old mantra that we should “keep politics out of sport” has been turned on its head. We are so proud of our Paralympians, our soccer and our rugby players that we are striving to “keep sport in politics”. The campaign to bring the William Webb Ellis trophy to Ireland is a national imperative.
Shane Ross TD is Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport