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Is world rugby ready for Pichot’s bold approach?

World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont (Photo: EPA-EFE/FRANCK ROBICHON) / Retired Argentine rugby union player Agustín Pichot (Photo: Filckr/Prensa UAR)
By Craig Ray
15 Apr 2020 0

As the planet’s social and economic landscapes are reshaped by coronavirus, World Rugby’s deputy chairman Agustin Pichot launched his bid for the top job last weekend, based on a manifesto of restructuring the sport.  

A restructuring of professional sports is underway thanks to the pandemic. There is simply no escaping the effects and impact of Covid-19 and how there is unlikely to be a return to “normal” because the illusion of “normal” has been shattered.

On a macro scale, the pandemic has highlighted how feckless many governments are in dealing with a real crisis. It has also exposed how economies based on movement of people and goods are so fragile and how health systems can be easily overwhelmed because they are inequitable.

On micro levels, the effect of the pandemic is forcing businesses to reassess their models and inevitably much of the fat will be cut in all sectors in an effort to survive.

The business of professional sport is no different and the coming months will inevitably lead to much restructuring. Even the seemingly super-rich leagues, tournaments and organisations, such as football’s major European leagues, Formula 1, the PGA and ATP Tours and the Olympic Games have felt the brunt of coronavirus. And it’s still early on in this pandemic’s cycle.

Professional rugby is not alone in being exposed as a brittle house of cards. And, as the sport has only been professional for 25 years, it is less well equipped to stave off disaster.

Despite billions of rands washing around rugby, it is a relative pauper next to football and America’s major professional sports. Rugby clubs, with one or two exceptions in both the northern and southern hemisphere, do not have the massive fan bases of football to sustain them.

The impact of the virus on the supposedly wealthy Premiership in England was hard and fast. Within a few weeks, English clubs were putting players and staff of furlough and cutting wages. What will happen if the lockdowns of leagues and tournaments continue for months, which is most likely the case?

In France, leagues have also been suspended and salary cuts imposed as the insecurity of what lies ahead lays bare rugby’s parlous state. The chomage system in France, that country’s unemployment benefit scheme, could help players, particularly in the lower leagues, survive for another 12 months. But, beyond that, the landscape is perilous.

The Rugby Football Union (RFU), which runs the game in England, estimated it would lose more than R1 billion in the next financial year. The  Australian Rugby Union estimated losses of about R800m if the shutdown wipes out the entire 2020 season and New Zealand would face a shortfall of R1.2 billion under the same circumstances. SA Rugby has modestly set losses at R200 million for now, but that is based on a return to play in the next few months.


Pichot is dynamic and ambitious

Pichot, 45, will go up against current chairman Bill Beaumont when the organisation decides on a new chairman next month. Pichot represents the bold and the new, coming from a wealthy family with multiple successful businesses. Beaumont, who captained the 1980 British & Irish Lions in apartheid South Africa, is a pin-up for the old, traditional ways of the game.

Pichot, a former Argentina scrum-half, has long been an advocate of radical change in rugby. He was instrumental in Argentina’s inclusion in the South Africa, New Zealand and Australia (Sanzar) alliance, now called Sanzaar, with the extra “A” for Argentina.

He has lobbied for a global calendar, bringing all tournaments in alignment regardless of the hemisphere. He was instrumental in changing eligibility periods from three to five years to stem the cynical poaching of players from the Pacific Islands, in particular, with a view to qualifying for a major international team and he has been an outspoken critic of rugby’s world ranking system. Pichot is dynamic and ambitious.

Rugby is still heavily reliant on international matches as its major source of broadcast revenue – unlike football where club competitions such as the Champions League (Europe), Premier League (England), La Liga (Spain) and Bundesliga (Germany) garner the most income.

Beaumont will claim the game has grown on his watch and World Rugby will throw out numbers apparently proving that growth. But the reality is that rugby’s power and money remain in the hands of the elite few and no amount of “participation numbers” changes the power structure. There has also been no meaningful move towards a global season, which Beaumont claimed was a priority when he took office in 2016. The Six Nations, played in February and March each year, needs to be flexible in moving its dates for a global season to become a reality. It remains entrenched in its traditional dates on Beaumont’s watch, with no indication that it will budge in the future.

“Women and men, we all fight for and believe in a fair, equal and more inclusive world. Do we? If so, it is time to make these dreams a reality for our sport, rugby,” Pichot said.

“It is time to think of a sport where professional and commercial income is becoming a true benefit for all, by empowering rugby’s growth around the world and by moving on from the time where those benefits were for just a few.

“It is a critical time and a critical election. The current crisis is an opportunity for the global realignment of our game. We cannot miss it.

“It is time to align our global calendar and demonstrate our strategic intent to attract the sustainable investment we need, or risk falling back to individual handouts and rants in the absence of a long-term vision for a global game. It is time to change, to focus our attention, love and dedication to all unions and federations equally.”

The debacle surrounding the bidding process for Rugby World Cup 2023 in late 2017 underlined just how much of an old boys’ club the sport remains. South Africa were given the best marks by an independent assessment panel of the RWC 2023 bids. That should have been that and the tournament should have been awarded to South Africa.

But, in the archaic system, World Rugby’s Council still had to vote despite the technical assessment scoring South Africa’s highest with a score of 78.97%. France scored 75.88% and Ireland 72.25% against a set of weighted criteria. World Rugby trumpeted that it was a “transparent” process but, when it came to the vote, it was done in secret.

France won the bid with 24 votes to 15 after Ireland dropped out in the first round of voting. The entire episode made a mockery of a technical assessment and of World Rugby’s so-called code of conduct, which asked delegates to vote for the best bid based on the technical committee’s findings.

Once again, backroom deals were made, especially between the northern hemisphere countries, to South Africa’s detriment.

Beaumont was in full spin mode after that shameful episode, desperately deflecting accusations that the code of conduct was a sham.

“The vote doesn’t make a mockery of the process because if you look at it there wasn’t a great deal between France and South Africa in the evaluation and the council members looked at that,” Beaumont said at the time.

“From World Rugby’s point of view, we feel that we have been absolutely transparent. Everyone was able to see the scoring of the evaluation and while they might have liked certain aspects of it, they disagreed with others. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the process we have gone through. It has been open and transparent and we’re proud of it.

“We made a recommendation and that recommendation wasn’t accepted by council even though it was extremely close between the two top candidates. We will learn as we move forward. This was the first time we embarked on this process and ultimately we agreed that the final decision would be a council decision.”

And who was a key figure in France’s RWC 2023 bid? None other than Bernard Laporte, who is now Beaumont’s running mate for the position of vice-chairman for next month’s elections. Laporte is another of the old guard intent on keeping rugby precisely where it is despite making noises to the contrary.

In an unprecedented move, Laporte has only made himself available as vice-chairman to Beaumont. If Pichot wins the election Laporte will withdraw his nomination. That is problematic for several reasons. 

Firstly, it is fundamentally against the spirit of the process and suggests that candidates can somehow make the conditions of their nominations. Laporte only made his position clear after he was nominated as a vice-chairman candidate, and not before.

Pichot, should he win, is now without a vice-chairman nominee on his ticket and has missed the chance to nominate someone else for the job.

The second issue with Laporte’s stance is that it indicates bias towards the Six Nations. Laporte, but his own admission, is only willing to work with Beaumont and not with Pichot, who stands for change.

In his manifesto, Beaumont has made all the right noises, despite not having achieved much in four years.

“Our aim is to have a more representative and diverse international federation that better serves the game, not one that is seen to only support the ‘old guard’,” Beaumont said in his manifesto.

“To achieve our aim of a strong international federation with a clear vision, we are proposing a wide-ranging governance review led by two independently appointed people. All major rugby stakeholders will be consulted, as will experts from outside the game, to help bring in fresh ideas and perspective.

“We believe that rugby is at a crossroads. If we work together there is an opportunity to make it a truly global sport played by more at the highest level and enjoyed by more at every level.”

Pichot is not without critics and there are those that claim he ran Argentinian rugby with an iron fist. But he comes into the fray as an anti-establishment firebrand willing to challenge the status quo. One of his ambitions is to give the Pacific Islands a bigger share of rugby’s wealth as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga provide a disproportionately large number of world-class players to the sport.

He wants to see genuine growth and he will have the support of southern hemisphere allies South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, who have two votes each.

But, as South Africa discovered to its cost in the RWC 2023 bidding and voting process, to beat the old guard will require nous and guile as well as altruistic intent.

For Pichot though, coronavirus could be the factor that makes the vote go his way because, if there is one thing the pandemic is teaching us, it’s that the world cannot go back to “normal”. There is no such thing anymore. Rugby needs a bold and ambitious new path, not a well-worn trail of gentlemen’s agreements and amateur officials masquerading as titans of a multimillion-dollar business. DM



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