LONDON – Black humour was the only refuge for South African rugby officials on Wednesday after they lost out in the vote to stage the 2023 World Cup, a global event the nation had been convinced was in the bag.
“Are you suggesting we’re not doing well? Based on what?,” asked SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux when it was put to him that France’s victory in the 2023 race might be a blow off the pitch to match the Springboks’ misery on it.
“Only kidding…” he then added with a rueful smile.
For if South Africa’s 38-3 hammering by Ireland at the weekend was not painful enough, this loss felt even more dispiriting.
“I‘m still trying to figure out what is the worst – Saturday’s result or today‘s,” shrugged Roux. “Maybe the only silver lining is that the last time the World Cup was held in France, we won it. Maybe we’ll win it again in 2023.”
Talk about straw-clutching. That 2007 glory seems like so much pre-history now.
The exodus of South African players in search of better opportunities abroad continues apace, the financial state of the game there remains parlous and the once-mighty Boks suffered the worst in a succession of humbling defeats in August, 57-0 to the All Blacks.
Now, to cap it all, the nation’s best money-spinning opportunity to reverse the depressing trend has been lost after World Rugby overrode the recommendations of its own board which had evaluated South Africa’s 2023 bid as the best.
“It’s like losing in the 79th minute of a match when you’re ahead,” said Mark Alexander, the SA Rugby President who felt the need to apologise to the nation for raising its expectations.
Inevitably, the result did lead to much anger and frustration among the rugby community back home.
Joel Stransky, the man whose boot delivered the rainbow nation’s finest sporting moment when his drop goal won the Mandela 1995 World Cup final, led the chorus of disappointment that South Africa will be deprived of a similar feelgood factor.
He blamed what he felt was the “old boys club still making decisions at World Rugby” while John Smit, the 2007 captain, muttered about the “joys of a secret ballot”.
Alexander also reckoned a transparent bid process had become “opaque” in the last two weeks.
“There were a set of rules, we abided by those rules up until today. The set of rules were broken during that process which we are upset about,” he said, offering a few opaque comments of his own.
What is clear, though, is how hard hit South Africa’s rugby development will be without the “golden ticket” of the 2023 hosting rights.
”It would have been great for our country, great for our sport,“ Roux said. ”When the FIFA World Cup was held there in 2010, we had a more than 20 percent uptake in players. We would have had the same thing here.
“When you host the World Cup, you create an aspirational platform and a financial platform that creates enough revenue so you can further your development plans and maybe stem the outflow of the players.”
That has gone now although he did point to the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa in 2021 as a serious consolation.
Yet if the sport may have been really left on its knees in South Africa by this body blow, Roux reckoned if it was up to him, there would be one answer – to bid again.
“It’s like a rugby match,” he said. “If you lose, you’ve got to take it on the chin, get up and just move on,” he said.