Brian O’Driscoll has had 15 days to digest the news that Ireland will not be hosting the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
By complete coincidence, that is also the length of time that lapsed between the publication of the World Rugby board’s much-maligned report — one that effectively ended Irish hopes of staging the tournament — and the council’s decision to send it to France over South Africa.
O’Driscoll, an ambassador for his nation’s bid and vocal in his criticism of both the process and Ireland’s Celtic neighbours at the time of the decision, insists that “acceptance has settled in.” However, there remains a frustration that his country will not be able to prove to the world that it is capable of putting on a World Cup party.
Ultimately, the fact that Ireland had not staged the competition before and could not call on ready-made stadia counted against them. “There are a couple of feelings,” O’Driscoll told ESPN. “You can always pull something apart in the aftermath, and hindsight allows you a different perspective but we did put together our best possible bid.
“It wasn’t felt as though it was good enough by the council members and you have to accept that. We couldn’t magic our stadia, which really hurt us in the report. We couldn’t magic them being built, that was always going to be a work in progress but we were shown as a viable option to host a World Cup.”
He added: “I look back on an awful lot learnt and a missed opportunity for us but a missed opportunity for World Rugby as well. Because I think we would have showcased something that the world hasn’t seen before.”
The bidding process proved brutal for those involved. Neither Ireland nor France took the report’s recommendation of South Africa well, and letters were sent by both to World Rugby as 15 largely fractious days followed.
France’s bid team was able to turn the board’s conclusion on its head with the lure of money, and the whole affair has clearly taken its toll on O’Driscoll. “At the moment it’s unthinkable to throw yourself back into it,” he said.
“Would I have the appetite for having a World Cup in Ireland again? Yes. Would I be involved as a result? Of course I would. But, you know, the thought of doing it any time soon, I’m not in that head space and I don’t think anyone at the IRFU [Irish Rugby Football Union] is.
“There hasn’t been even a mention of four years, eight years, 12 years, we’re back licking our wounds and we’ll regather and I’m sure a number of different factors will have to change if we are to have another go at it.”
In one of those quirks of the sporting calendar, Ireland’s next international fixture is against France in Paris. In contrast to their battle for the 2023 World Cup, Joe Schmidt’s side will arrive on the opening weekend of the Six Nations as favourites.
France have disappointed under Guy Noves and ended November winless from matches against New Zealand, a deflated South Africa and Japan. Is this, then, a good time to be playing them on their own turf? “It is. Definitely,” O’Driscoll replied.
“France are as disappointing as I’ve seen them for a number of years. They just seem to lack cohesion and lack understanding of what they’re trying to achieve.
“You need to be very organised. You’re obviously going to get very skilful players at international level but organisation is what differentiates the better teams from the other sides and I think at the moment you’ve got to rely on more than passion and intensity and graft in this game. You’ve got to be able to think your way around the park.”
In contrast to the French, Ireland had a November to be proud of. Victories over South Africa, Fiji and Argentina were achieved while giving game time to a new wave of talent — Bundee Aki, Chris Farrell, James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale to name just four.
O’Driscoll is delighted with the team’s continued progression under Schmidt and Andy Farrell, but baulks at the suggestion that they will head to Paris as the team to beat. “I don’t think I’d say Six Nations favourites considering what Eddie Jones has done with England over the last two seasons,” he said. “But I don’t think they’re a million miles away from that standard.”
One issue that could derail Ireland in the near future, if not ahead of this spring’s championship, is the uncertainty over a number of key players’ contracts. Simon Zebo has already decided to accept a move to France for next season, and he could be joined by Munster teammates Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander — two of a further 10 Irish internationals whose contracts are up this summer — in opting to move overseas.
O’Driscoll namechecks that back row pair as integral to Ireland’s future hopes, but he does not believe they are irreplaceable. “Johnny Sexton or Conor Murray or a Tadhg Furlong, I think those three names, if any of those were seen overseas the gulf between them and the next player is so vast that I think they’d have to pick them,” he said.
“Is Peter O’Mahony completely irreplaceable? Maybe not, albeit he’s a shoo-in to the team right now, the strength of that back row is in a good spot. It will be a difficult decision for Peter O’Mahony.
“He’s a young family too and he’s 28 years of age so he’s got to think about multiple things.”
O’Driscoll added: “Yes, obviously [there’s] the carrot of the World Cup in 2019 but it’s a short career and people have to maximise their earnings while they can. In many players’ cases they will not be able to earn to that capacity again when they finish up playing. So, you’ve got to make hay while sun shines.
“It’s about making sure you make the right decision from your rugby perspective, but also from your family and your security perspective. There are some difficult decisions ahead for some of those key players.”
Brian O’Driscoll is an HSBC rugby ambassador