2023 Rugby World Cup: Jousting almost over for host bidders

Following weeks of briefings, counter-briefings and bad blood, we will learn Wednesday which bid has won the right to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images

Unfounded, inaccurate, flawed, misguided, narrow and unreasonable. World Rugby billed its independent report into who should host the 2023 Rugby World Cup as transparent, objective, professional and robust but it provoked a series of different adjectives from France and Ireland after South Africa went from outsiders to favourites having secured its recommendation.

But is Wednesday's vote a fait accompli? Not if Ireland and France have anything to do with it. All three bids knew it was coming, they agreed to the transparent nature of the process, but French and Irish noses have been put firmly out of joint. Since its publication on Oct. 31 there has been a mad scrambling of briefing and counter-brief, clarifications, demands for alterations and views aired in a public manner seldom seen these days.

With the World Rugby council having 39 votes at their collective disposal, 20 marks the winning post for the three prospective hosts. South Africa already have three of the magic figure needed after New Zealand publicly backed their bid. That leaves 36 to scrap over. A draw, or a collective abstention and it will be Bill Beaumont's call for which country triumphs.

The 2023 pantomime will not conclude with such a grand finale; you will not have the close up of Beaumont's eyes flickering between three golden envelopes as the delegations wait in sweaty anticipation for him to crown one the winner. But for a moment, imagine, that for all this tit-for-tat, the millions of euro and rand spent on forming bids, it came down to one man's call.

Although it will not come to that, given the war of words that has broken out since the report was published, it would be a fittingly absurd conclusion to an ugly couple of weeks.

But hold on to your hats, there could yet be suspense Wednesday. There is a chance it will go to a second round of voting, with the lowest-supported bid dropping out. In a game of few certainties, by mid-afternoon the madly-written letters will be thrown into a drawer of missed opportunity with one candidate left smiling, and embracing before, inevitably, re-affirming their commitment to deliver a financially watertight and lucrative tournament.

That is what it essentially comes down to. And there is no need to be apologetic for this. The report picked South Africa's bid fundamentally due to its ready-made stadia and big-tournament experience, with a number of financial guarantees to back it up. Boxes ticked and stability near-guaranteed as the build up to Japan 2019 continues to be punctuated with problems.

But was the report correct? France and Ireland certainly think there is room for criticism and scrutiny. And they went public.

It started off with Bernard Laporte, the FFR president, labelling it "misguided" and "flawed". Then he called it "laughable", referring to the section of the report on France's anti-doping laws. There's more. It was "nonsense", full of "blatant errors". A succinct summary of Laporte's take is he felt it was "incompetent". He had bulldozed down the fence, rather than perched on it.

"The match has not begun yet," was Laporte's message to South Africa and Ireland. Preceding this was Dick Spring, the chairman of Ireland's bid, sending a letter to World Rugby's council members and unions in which he, reportedly, said the independent review's outlook was "narrow, operational and theoretical".

He even turned to Albert Einstein, using his quote: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted".

The French Rugby Federation (FFR) delivered a 50-page report to World Rugby with its issues and Philip Browne, the Irish Rugby Union's CEO, sent a letter, which has been seen by ESPN, with nine questions for Brett Gosper to answer. It also emphasised the report should only be used as a guide for those voting, rather than a steer towards South Africa, and said Ireland's bid had "suffered unreasonably, relative to the scoring for other bidders".

In short, there are a lot of unhappy folk. But this has been a process all three signed up to. There is always that fine balance between risk and reward with such an agreement -- only one country was going to be pleased with the report and even South Africa, privately, will have their own queries and qualms around some of the conclusions.

It remains to be seen how the council interpret the last couple of weeks. Do they take heed of the problems France and Ireland have raised and factor their clarifications in? Do they take the report at face value, having agreed to the process, and back South Africa off the back of it? Or do they just look at the figures, and guaranteed income generated from the world's second biggest tournament?

On Wednesday, after bluff, counter-bluff, tit-for-tat messaging and negotiation, we will find out who will host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. There is only one certainty: it will either be France, South Africa or Ireland. But you cannot help but feel there may be one or two more twists in this bizarre episode.