Gerry Thornley: Beaumont and Pichot battle highlights hemisphere divide

Whoever wins the vote for chairman of World Rugby, difficult choices loom ahead

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont is seeking a second term, going against challenger  Agustín Pichot. Photograph: Jason O’Brien/Getty Images

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont is seeking a second term, going against challenger Agustín Pichot. Photograph: Jason O’Brien/Getty Images

 

Rugby, like all sports, is feeling utterly powerless right now as it waits to see how it might eventually one day be able to respond to the loosening of restrictions arising from the coronavirus pandemic. But, both in the meantime and beyond, rugby has choices to make, and very difficult ones at that.

Beginning on Monday, it transpires, and continuing until Thursday, auditors from PwC began compiling the 51 votes from the various unions, federations and conferences in the election of a new chairman of World Rugby, being contested by the incumbent, Bill Beaumont, and his challenger and outgoing vice-chairman, Agustín Pichot. Polling closes at 5pm Irish time on Thursday, but the votes have already been decided upon.

Like the other five unions and federations, the IRFU has nominated one of its three delegates – John O’Driscoll, Phil Orr and Su Carty – to confirm whether their three votes will be going to Beaumont or Pichot.

Despite reports suggesting the IRFU and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) were considering breaking away from the Six Nations bloc in voting for Pichot, this will almost certainly not be the case. The IRFU will row in behind Beaumont and the Six Nations will, it can safely be presumed, submit its 18 votes en bloc behind the current chairman and his running mate for the position of vice-chairman, French Rugby Federation president Bernard Laporte, in their Anglo-French entente cordial.

That is how the Six Nations traditionally do things, to maximise their power base in the world game. They are historically and traditionally very strongly aligned and they’re not about to change now. Unity is strength and all that.

Financial muscle

They don’t always stick together, of course. The Rugby Football Union has, in the past, sought to broker its own Six Nations television deal, and Laporte used all manner of financial muscle to ensure France will host the 2023 World Cup.

The equally unholy Anglo-French alliance between their club owners brought a wrecking ball to the old European Rugby Cup and Heineken Cup, to be replaced by the unfulfilled promises of European Professional Rugby Cup and a cup that is, if anything, inferior, and the Scots were quicker than their Celtic cousins to welcome BT aboard (ie BT Murrayfield).

Pichot is seen as something of a revolutionary, and a potentially dangerous one at that

But Beaumont especially, if less so Laporte, is seen as one of the Six Nations’ own, and both are proven lobbyists who will safeguard their interests. Beaumont, particularly, has known the majority of those involved in the various unions, federations and World Rugby over many years and is simply a very highly regarded and trusted man.

Laporte, as an aside, is being unopposed as vice-chairman and, due to the coronavirus pandemic, has had his presidency of the French federation extended by another year.

Pichot, by comparison, is seen as something of a revolutionary, and a potentially dangerous one at that, who threatens the golden cash cow that is the Six Nations: witness his proposal for a World Nations League.

There are also reservations about his clear desire to improve the lot of the impoverished Argentina Rugby Union (UAR) and potential conflicts of interest arising from his many business interests.

Pichot is the founder of the PEGSA Group (Pichot Entertainment Group South America) which is a media production company that generates content from several sports, all for ESPN, which among other things is the carrier of America’s Rugby Championship.

He is president, and a director, of Argentina Fortescue South America, the mining operation of Perth-based iron ore tycoon Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest. The billionaire needed permission from World Rugby and the Australian Union to launch a new, six-team competition, Global Rapid Rugby, last year which included the Western Force and took place across the Asia-Pacific region. It was suspended after just one round of matches this year.

Conflict of interest

Pichot was pressured to admit a conflict of interest to the rest of the World Rugby executive committee after pressure from Rugby Australia representative Brett Robinson.

Rugby Australia was reportedly enraged with Pichot for getting mixed up with Forrest during negotiations, and was also reportedly wary that Forrest may have been jockeying to relocate his World Series to South America.

Yet despite this, Pichot remains more unpopular in the northern hemisphere, whereas while being proposed by his own UAR, he was seconded by the Australian rugby union. The remainder of the Sanzar bloc, South Africa and New Zealand are also believed to be almost certainly putting their three votes apiece behind the former Pumas scrumhalf.

Throw in the two votes from Sudamérica Rugby behind Pichot, whereas Rugby Europe on Monday issued a statement saying that their two votes were mandated for Beaumont and, worryingly, it’s clear that this election has strengthened the divide between the northern and southern hemispheres.

Presuming he is elected again, Beaumont will then have four years to leave a lasting legacy

It’s true that one aspect about the Six Nations which is often overlooked is that it is an “invitational” tournament, based on location and what broadcasting and sponsorship deals each participant can bring to the country. Not having relegation provides the “Six” with its financial security.

Likewise, it’s not the fault of the leading northern hemisphere countries that Sanzar have made an absolute horlicks of Super Rugby, which was once the standard-bearer for sub-Test rugby. As Michael Lynagh and others are wont to highlight, the constant tinkering with the now conference-based format has befuddled even supporters in their own countries as games are played out to vast swathes of empty seats.

Badly run

Nor is it the fault of the six nations in Europe that the Australian Rugby Union has been so badly run and built up huge debts long before the coronavirus pandemic brought this to a crisis.

Beaumont, who has never come across as a visionary, and Laporte, who just seems to be a supremely ambitious and effective political animal, will have to compromise, or at any rate encourage the European elite to spread their riches. If nothing else, presuming he is elected again, Beaumont will then have four years to leave a lasting legacy with no tomorrow beyond that.

Given their own financial shortfall during this crisis, the leading European unions and federations are not in a position to give direct handouts. But consenting to proposals around a World Nations League, a Club World Cup (if only a one-off final or a top four competition) and a globally aligned season which might also encompass real growth in the game globally, are within their compass.

The needs of some countries are more acute than others, and this is not a time to continue old divisions. A crisis looms, but opportunity also knocks like never before.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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