Johnson fall-out may damage England's World Cup bid

Chris Hewett
Monday 06 January 2014 04:44
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The labyrinthine intrigue of global rugby politics was hardly at the forefront of Martin Johnson's mind when he flicked a two-fingered salute at protocol and effectively forced Mary McAleese, the president of the Republic of Ireland, to walk halfway round Dublin before shaking hands with the players in the build-up to last month's Grand Slam decider at Lansdowne Road. The England captain was simply in one of his dark, cussed pre-match moods. In short, he wanted to get on with it.

But these little insults tend to be remembered by those who take formalities seriously, and if the great and good of Twickenham were hoping for Irish support in their bid to stage the 2007 World Cup, that hope evaporated the moment Johnson allowed his awkward streak to get the better of him. When the International Rugby Board announce the outcome of the tender contest between England and France at the end of today's annual council meeting – Dublin is the setting for this confrontation, too – it is highly likely that the locals will cast their votes for Paris rather than London.

Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, and his fellow Twickenham grandees have travelled the planet in search of backing, principally for their radical plan to restructure the game's premier tournament – a 16-team competition complete with a cricket-style "Super Eight" stage, a parallel event for developing nations and a £20m compensation package for countries suffering financial hardship as a consequence of the World Cup – but also for an alternative "traditional" option that would replicate the less complex 20-team format on which this year's event in Australia will be based.

It is beyond dispute that England's bid is more imaginative than that tabled by the French, who have weakened their own case by offering pool matches to Wales, Scotland and Ireland in a vote-buying stunt more naked that anything you might witness in a dodgy Soho cinema. It is also clear that England's is the more lucrative of the competing tenders: Baron and his colleagues estimate a profit of £100m over and above television and sponsorship revenues, as opposed to the £60m forecast by their rivals. Indeed, the Twickenham tender is probably the most inventive document ever to emerge from that leafy and, until very recently, supremely stuffy corner of British sport.

Imagination and invention may not be enough, though; it may even be counter-productive, for the IRB council is about as revolutionary as Basil Fawlty and often twice as batty. To win a majority of the 21 votes – two each for England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and one apiece for Argentina, Canada, Italy, Japan and FIRA, which represents the non-élite rugby nations of Europe – the Twickenhamites will have to convince delegates both that their financial projections are sound and that the world game, in the grip of a sharp commercial downturn, cannot afford to reject such a windfall. That will be easier said than done, given a widespread whispering campaign to the effect that England's sums do not add up.

There were indications yesterday that Wales, the most impoverished of the major unions, were edging towards England, who can also count on the support of Canada and, in all likelihood, Japan. That would leave them five votes short of a winning total. With Ireland and Scotland thought to be backing the French, along with the Italians and FIRA, represented by Jose Marie Epalza of Spain, failure to capture the votes of two of the southern hemisphere superpowers would be ruinous. If South Africa, who cherish their close rugby ties with the French, remain out of reach, the focus will fall on Australia and New Zealand, who just happen to be at loggerheads following the trans-Tasman ruckus over hosting rights for the 2003 tournament.

If the RFU delegation are feeling edgy, their nerves are not nearly as taut as those at the Recreation Ground, where Bath, two points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership, play their fellow relegation candidates, London Irish, in a must-win match tonight. "Everyone here understands the situation," said Brian Smith, the former Wallaby international who joined the club as co-coach last summer. "The only time you are nervous about going into an examination is when you haven't done your homework. We have done our homework and we will be ready."

The full-back Matt Perry is expected to return to the Bath side after injury, but there are still doubts over Mike Tindall, the England centre. Irish will be without their international wing, Justin Bishop, who underwent surgery on his fractured ankle on Tuesday night.

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