BACK TO THE FUTURE
Will Bill and Bernie take world rugby on an excellent adventure or a bogus journey?
The decision by the World Rugby Council to re-elect chairman Bill Beaumont for another four years at the weekend underlined the conservative nature of the organisation.
At a time when rugby is in desperate need of new ideas, largely because of the havoc the global coronavirus pandemic is wreaking with the sport, it chose to keep running on a treadmill.
Moving miles forwards towards becoming a global game, extending a hand to new commercial partners and broadening the base strength of the sport have been left in the hands of the man that barely took it around the block in his first four years.
Beaumont, the 68-year-old former England captain, won re-election over 45-year-old former Argentine captain Agustin Pichot with 28 votes to 23. It was a blow for progression in a sport desperately in need of an overhaul 25 years after it moved to professionalism.
A quarter of a century into professionalism, the money and power reside in the hands of an elite few, and the sport is no nearer a global season than it was in the mid-1990s. Beaumont and running-mate and new vice-chairman Bernard Laporte, who are both veterans of the entrenched elite, have promised to change this situation over the next four years.
How, is unclear. World Rugby moves at a glacial pace because of the type of leaders it has had and Bill and Bernie come from that stock.
A game that was already in need of a cash injection for it to grow, has seen that situation exacerbated by the coronavirus. Individual unions are on the brink of collapse due to cancelled and postponed seasons. USA Rugby has filed for bankruptcy, while Australia, South Africa and New Zealand could all face losses of around R1-billion if the 2020 season is cancelled.
This seemed an ideal time for a progressive, dynamic leader with a much greater vision for change to lead the organisation in these uncertain times. In the end, World Rugby’s council stepped back from the relative unknown in Pichot and turned to the comfortable and familiar. For most of the big hitters in the world game, it was better to entrench their positions in Beaumont’s bosom than bet on an outsider from Buenos Aires.
The southern hemisphere giants, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, all voted for Pichot, as did Argentina. The Six Nations countries – England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales gave their 18 votes to Beaumont. Ultimately, the swing came down to Fiji and Samoa supporting Beaumont despite Pichot campaigning on greater equity for the Pacific Island nations and tier-two countries in general.
Fiji, Tonga and Samoa in particular, are massive providers of playing talent to the global game, but suffer as Test nations because of the lack of parity when it comes to fixtures – among other issues.
Just before Rugby World Cup 2019, the All Blacks thrashed Tonga 92-7 in a warm-up match. That was the All Blacks’ 47th Test after winning RWC 2015 and only their third against a tier-two side.
Tonga were playing only their 21st Test in the same period, and just their fourth against a tier-one side. It was a microcosm of the problems besetting the game, and an issue Pichot vowed to meet head-on.
Beaumont is not tone deaf and seemingly recognises that the game has to somehow move on, although thinking it and implementing change if your heart really isn’t in it, will be difficult. After winning the vote, Beaumont immediately made the right noises about change and growth despite delivering neither in his first four years. He also claimed to be only “at halftime” in his work.
“Over the last four years we have achieved a lot [other than steer wealth to the elite few, the definition of ‘a lot’ is vague], but we are at halftime and need to press on in the second half. I have a clear mandate to work with Bernard to implement progressive, meaningful and sustainable change,” Beaumont said.
“As an organisation, we must lead, be transparent, accountable and continue to serve for all. We must be united in our drive to make this great sport even better, simpler, safer and more accessible. We must listen to players, fans, competitions, our unions and regions, and take decisions that are in the best interests of all with our strong values to the fore.
“Now is not the time for celebration. We have work to do. We are tackling Covid-19 and must implement an appropriate return-to-rugby strategy that prioritises player welfare, while optimising any opportunity to return to international rugby this year in full collaboration with club competitions for the good of players, fans and the overall financial health of the sport.
“I am determined to ensure that the spirit of unity and solidarity that has characterised our work in response to an unprecedented global Covid-19 pandemic is the cornerstone of a new approach that will deliver a stronger, more sustainable game when we emerge with new enthusiasm, a renewed purpose and an exciting future.”
Four years ago, when he won election the first time, Beaumont never mentioned that he was on an eight-year plan and 2020 would only be “halftime”. His narrative has changed, but only the next four years will prove if his actions have as well.
Rugby can’t afford four more years of a widening chasm between the have and have-nots if it truly wants to become a global sport with all the associated trimmings of massive broadcast deals and strong cross-border competitions.
Laporte, a master at bringing home swing votes as he did in the flawed Rugby World Cup 2023 bidding process, is next in line for the top job. Laporte will almost certainly be one of the candidates for chairman in 2024 and he has four years positioned next to Beaumont’s throne to work on his future election.
“During this unprecedented and global Covid-19 crisis, we must act and unite unions from the north and south and the professional leagues around a common objective to define a strong and sustainable future for all,” Laporte said.
“We will pursue these reforms together and act in solidarity with the rugby family, to drive the game forward on and off the field, further the welfare of our players and make the sport more attractive and accessible.”
The deals have been done and for better or worse, World Rugby has Bill and Bernie to guide it. Hopefully, it’s not a bogus journey but an excellent adventure. DM
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