Adam Hathaway, rugby correspondent of The People, examines another mucky episode in rugby politics and says farewell to one of England’s unluckiest players.
A couple of weeks ago we praised World Rugby for the way they conducted the process of picking a recommended host for the 2023 World Cup. It looked all above board at the time and everything for once was crystal clear – and that is a sentence we never thought we would write.
The transparent process, on 31 October, told the council to vote for South Africa and that, we thought, should have been that. But rugby is never like that and this latest round of shenanigans did not look great.
Fifteen days later the recommendation was out with the bins. Those chancers in the Houses of Parliament have got nothing on this lot in the horse-trading, back-biting and back-stabbing stakes.
This was serious business, there was a shed load of cash riding on it, and even Theresa May got
involved although you would have thought she had other things to get busy with.
RugbySpy did warn you all that things don’t always go according to plan in the murky corridors of power of rugby but this time the suits out did themselves. You didn’t have to be Russell Grant to foretell that the whole thing might go belly.
Last week, at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, there was a lot of whispering going on as the council bods walked into a room next to where the media were sitting, to vote.
And sure enough they didn’t vote for South Africa and France got the gig 10 years after hosting the 2007 version of the tournament.
That delighted the French and a few of the hacks who had a couple of euros on the Gallic bid but it did not smell right.
When the votes were counted after a bizarre process when some countries get three votes and some two, France got 18 votes out of 39, South Africa bagged 12 and Ireland got eight.
That did for the Irish who were eliminated and France won the second ballot 24-15 and big Claude Atcher, a former player with Racing Club who ran the French bid, had hit the jackpot. He is an impressive bloke Atcher, who had every figure at his fingertips when we spoke to him a few weeks ago, and he really pulled this one out of the bag.
And World Rugby had hit the jackpot with the French promising £360millon that will be distributed around the game. Trebles all round, then.
There is no doubt the World Cup in France will be a great event. The one in 2007 was superb and their trains mostly worked apart from on the night of the final between South Africa and England when some transport staff decided to go on strike.
Despite that the French put on a pretty good party and they will get the bunting out again. Steak frites anyone?
But World Rugby did not hit the political jackpot. They had advised their men how to vote and they had had it thrown back in their face and it did not look great.
Bill Beaumont, the chairman of the game’s governors, looked shell-shocked when he opened the envelope that had France’s name on it.
He was asked if he should resign and if he was embarrassed by the outcome. He said he wasn’t but he looked about as happy as the Wallaby coach Michael Cheika did on Saturday when almost everything that could go against Australia at Twickenham did go against them.
Then the recriminations really started. At lot of the stuff said on the top table was pretty bland but away from that people were seething.
The Irish felt betrayed by the Scots and the Welsh. England voted for Ireland first time and France second time in a bit of cute politics even though the RFU effectively defied Beaumont who is a former England captain and former chairman at Twickenham.
But the Irish were gunning for their Celtic cousins although they really didn’t have much to moan about. Their stadia are not up to it at the moment, their bid was not promising as much money as the French and they were trading on the romance, it will be a bit of a crack and we haven’t had it before card.
Wales had voted for South Africa because their chief executive Gareth Davies had been on the committee that recommended the Boks in the first place.
And the Scots voted for France because they went for the bid that will give them the most dosh.
The Irish chief executive Philip Browne said: “We are very disappointed that Scotland and Wales didn’t vote for us. Scotland went for the money and Wales went out of solidarity with Gareth Davies.
“The reality is that unless you have big shiny new stadia you have to wonder why you would bid. I think World Rugby need to decide what sort of tournament they want and make sure everyone understand what their vision is at the outset. For new hosts, you are at a disadvantage, and you are at a disadvantage if you don’t have big new shiny stadia.”
Frankly a personal view is that if you haven’t got big, new shiny stadia you have got no business hosting a World Cup anyway.
In just over two weeks after the Halloween night declaration for South Africa the whole process had been turned on its head.
Unions had publically and privately trashed the other bids. Bernard Laporte, the president of the French Federation and one of the game’s zanier characters, had gone into one of his tail spins.
Laporte told us this. “On security, we have the same number of points, even though there are 52 murders a day in South Africa. It’s crazy stuff,” he said.
“So we have written to World Rugby and Bill Beaumont to get answers to our questions and to get these changed, to have France placed in front.” And that little lot was just what he said in public.
But imagine how World Rugby must have felt.
They put the recommendation process in so that everyone knew what was going on and it was designed to prevent the shady deals.
You know the ones. Vote for us and we will give a quarter-final, or a semi-final, and that gives you a few more quid. Well those are the sort of deals that made the 1991, 1999, 2007 and 2015 World Cups look faintly ridiculous.
In 1991, the tournament was jointly hosted by England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and France and there were games all over the place.
In 1999, Wales were hosts so it goes without saying there were matches in England, Scotland, France and Ireland as well.
In 2007, French, the hosts, played New Zealand in Cardiff – go figure – and in 2015, when England were putting on the show there were also games in the Welsh capital.
Which all makes you wonder what deals were struck in the days between the recommendation being announced and the final vote in London.
France and England were talking about playing on a fallow week in the Six Nations meaning it would only last six weeks for their teams instead of seven. Maybe that is back on the agenda.
The Royal Garden is a pretty swish hotel and spotlessly clean. But something stunk there last week and it wasn’t the drains.
The saddest email of last week came from Leicester and told us that Tom Croft has been forced to retire from the game.
It seems like we get one of these messages every week and it proves what a tough old game it is that these blokes play for our entertainment every week.
Croft had the lot – with knobs on. He was quick, could operate in the line out and starred in two Lions tours where he played five Tests against South Africa and Australia.
And his try against France in Paris in 2012 still stands out. He went past the French defence like Jeremy Guscott – and he was playing in the back row.
The flanker won 40 caps for England and could have had at least double that if he had steered clear of injury but the knocks won in the end and at 32 Croft is finished on the pitch.
It is not inconceivable that England back row could currently be featuring Croft and Tom Rees – another player who was forced to retire prematurely and could easily have been captain by now.
Croft’s main problem was a neck injury which he suffered in 2012 when he got a tackle on Harlequins No.8 Nick Easter all wrong and his neck has finally given up.
But he still managed to get on the 2013 Lions tour to Australia and played his last match for England against in 2015 despite having enough metal in his neck to trigger an airport alarm.
With a couple of children at home Croft has made the right call but it will always feel like we never
saw as much of him as we could have.
And it is another reminder of what the players put themselves through every week.