Rugby must act to quell danger of international game splitting
The south will not and cannot afford to endure another four years of muddle and fudge
There is a danger of the international game splitting unless the next few years spawn meaningful change and an end to self-interest. Photograph: Inpho
Bill Beaumont’s re-election as World Rugby’s chairman was not an end but a new beginning. The former England captain faced several hurdles as a player, but nothing compared to what he faces in his final administrative stint. His narrow victory over Agustín Pichot shows there is a danger of the international game splitting unless the next few years spawn meaningful change and an end to self-interest.
Beaumont was backed by the Six Nations while Pichot harvested the votes of the four Rugby Championship countries: had the former Argentina scrumhalf persuaded one of the European unions to back him, he would have won. His failure gave the incumbent a majority of five, but Pichot did not secure enough votes from the countries and associations representing the nations below what is called tier one to bring what had been a stealthy campaign to a successful conclusion.
There was little to choose between Beaumont and Pichot in terms of policies, but the Rugby Championship countries have become frustrated at the ability of their European rivals to thwart projects, such as the Nations Championship which Beaumont floated last year only to see it torpedoed by Ireland and Scotland, although Pichot’s Argentina ended up not voting for it.
A central plank of Beaumont’s campaign was an independent governance review, but even when he delivers it, there is no guarantee of its recommendations being approved. Some campaigning for Pichot argued only he could drag World Rugby into the professional era, failing to point out the governing body is like the United Nations where the major powers are armed with the weight of veto. Beaumont’s diplomatic skills will be needed and he was the candidate best qualified to deliver change.
The sports lawyer Darren Bailey argued in the Guardian last week that the current crisis gave rugby the opportunity to address three faultlines that had bedevilled it since 1995: north versus south, club versus country and developed versus developing. For all the talk of the need for a global calendar and greater harmonisation between the hemispheres, nothing radical will happen until the primacy of international rugby is established in all countries, which means the systems in France and England mirroring the other eight championship nations.
Few clubs in France and England are sustainable, as the last two months have shown, but they have used borrowing and the largesse of backers to tempt players from the southern hemisphere at salaries inflated to more than compensate for either putting a Test career on hold or ending it. The Sanzaar unions responded by expanding Super Rugby to entice more out of broadcasters and help them to compete financially, but they were never able to catch up and diluted what had been the premier tournament below Test level.
Australia – a country that, unlike New Zealand and South Africa, does not have a strong base – overextended itself and had no slack when the virus led to sport shutting down. Its union is looking for a new chief executive and this week appointed Rob Clarke, who filled the role for the Brumbies and the Rebels, on an interim basis. “The game is facing some unprecedented challenges,” he said before going off to find some answers.
Australia, like the other southern hemisphere unions, cannot afford for the game to muddle on as before, driven not by a common goal or an executive with the authority to govern in the interest of the game rather than self-interest, but application of sticking plasters that are lacking in adhesive.
“There is still a level of governance reform that is overdue,” said New Zealand Rugby’s chief executive, Brent Impey. “It would be good to see the courage taken to make the decisions needed to ensure the continued sustainability and success of rugby globally, not just for a limited number of unions and regions.”
The south will not, because they cannot afford to, endure another four years of muddle and fudge. The slickness of Pichot’s campaign suggested it was not one that was hastily put together, and if Beaumont’s governance review, which will be set up under the former sports minister Hugh Robertson by the end of the month, comes to nothing the four Rugby Championship countries will have a choice to make: either carry on and let the Six Nations hold sway, or declare that if nothing changes they will no longer be bound by World Rugby’s tour schedule.
The ultimate threat would be to break away, but where would they go? They would be out of the World Cup and have no more Lions tours. If Europe continues to oppose the plan for a Nations Championship, something that would offer emerging nations a route to tournament rugby, and with it any form of revenue sharing, a meaningful tactic would be to pull out of the July and November Test windows and negotiate matches on an individual basis.
They may be helped, in the short term at least, by the lack of liquidity of clubs in France and England. The upward curve of salaries will be checked and there will be a review of salary cap levels and, in England, the dispensation that allows two marquee players to be registered outside the cap with no limits on their wages.
World Rugby has the opportunity to lead from the front, but Beaumont can do no more than advise and help formulate policies. A transformative plan such as the Nations Championship should not have its fate dependent on the unanimous assent of the Six Nations or Rugby Championship. It is the old amateur way of operating, for the benefit of the few.
Those days are gone, as Beaumont appreciates every bit as much as Pichot. If the last couple of months have shown anything, it is that the game needs to expand globally. Its footprint is too small. That did not matter once, but it does now.