London: France will host the 2023 Rugby World Cup in a huge surprise after the Council of the sport's governing body went against the recommendations of an extensive evaluation report in a secret ballot on Wednesday.
South Africa had been recommended by World Rugby's Board but in a second ballot the Council members voted convincingly 24-15 for France, which also held the tournament in 2007.
It was the first time the Board's recommendation has been ignored and the decision was immediately followed by questions over the selection process and the point of running an extensive and transparent evaluation process only for the decision to be taken in secret.
The shock announcement by World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont in London was greeted by a moment of stunned silence, before the French delegation delivered a muffled cheer.
Ireland, which has never hosted the World Cup on its own, was eliminated after the first round when it secured eight votes to the 13 of South Africa and 18 of France.
The bidding countries did not take part in the ballot. The remaining Six Nations and SANZAR countries had three votes each with the rest made up from the six regional associations and smaller rugby countries.
Beaumont made repeated references to an "open and transparent" process when congratulating France but was unable to give a clear answer as to why the final vote was held in secret.
"We made a recommendation which wasn't accepted by the Council," he said. "It's the first time we've had this process and we will learn as we move forward.
"Because the vote went to France after we had recommended South Africa doesn't mean it's humiliation (for World Rugby)."
Controversies and corruption claims have surrounded bids to host other major sporting events in recent years and although the Olympic Games remains a secret ballot, FIFA has changed its rules to make the vote for the next World Cup an open one.
Bernard Laporte, the head of the French rugby union, had publicly complained about many aspects of the evaluation report, saying it was "nonsense and full of errors" and accusing World Rugby of incompetence.
However, speaking in London after the announcement, the former France coach was all smiles. "We did dispute some aspects but I'm not saying that's why we won," he said. "I'd like to thank World Rugby for replying to our letter after we communicated on our misunderstanding and maybe it helped us.
"We've won but it's really grass-roots rugby that has won," he added. "It's worth a billion Euros for (French) shopkeepers. 17,000 jobs will be created and I'm very proud of that."
South Africa, which staged the 1995 tournament, winning it in their first appearance after missing the first two because of the apartheid sporting ban, had been odds-on favourite after coming out clearly on top of the evaluation report.
Mark Alexander, president of SA Rugby, said he was "desolated".
"We produced a compelling bid document that earned the unanimous recommendation of the Board. That recommendation was questioned last week by rivals, but endorsed a second time by World Rugby last week," he said.
"However, the view of the experts and World Rugby’s leadership was overturned by World Rugby Council members, who may have had other factors to take into account."
Philip Brown, CEO of the Irish Union, struggled to hide his frustration.
"World Rugby needs to decide what sort of tournament it wants," he said. "Money is imperative but it shouldn’t be everything - we could run a world-class tournament and produce the necessary revenues."