Beaumont vs Pichot

World Rugby needs to be shaken up

Election rivals: World Rugby vice-chairman Augustín Pichot, left, and World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont. (Photos: Flickr / Prensa UAR | Dave Rowland / Getty Images)

A close battle for the leadership of World Rugby comes to a head this Sunday when delegates vote for either incumbent chairman Bill Beaumont or current vice-chairman Augustín Pichot. The decision will have massive ramifications for the future of the game.

Bill Beaumont is 68 and a part of the old guard that has navigated rugby through its first quarter-of-a-century of professionalism. He has been chairman of World Rugby for four years but has been part of Britain’s rugby establishment since his playing days in the 70s and early 80s.

Augustín Pichot, from Argentina, is 23 years younger and represents rugby’s new world. Like Beaumont, he captained his country at Test level and like the Englishman he has been involved in the administration of the game for many years as well.

The winning candidate needs a majority of the 50 votes cast. If it is deadlocked at 25-all, then Beaumont, as chairman, has the casting vote. Naturally, rugby’s history of shadowy deals and “gentlemen’s agreements”, which made a farce of the Rugby 2023 World Cup bid, means the vote is done in secret. It’s precisely that type of behaviour that Pichot wants to change.

In another example of the nefarious deals struck, Fiji’s Francis Kean was nominated by France as a candidate for the important Executive Committee (Exco). Fiji’s vote in this election is crucial because it will be minnow nations of the sport that decide its outcome.

France’s Bernard Laporte, who infamously swayed Rugby Africa, among others, to vote for its bid to host RWC 2023, is Beaumont’s running mate. He is up for the vice-chairmanship with a view to being chairman in 2024 when Beaumont’s tenure ends.

Kean is notorious. He is brother-in-law to Fiji’s prime minister Frank Bainimarama and was appointed as commander of Fiji’s naval forces following the former’s successful 2006 coup.

In late 2006 Kean killed a man at a wedding at the Royal Suva Yacht Club. He was put up on murder charges but thanks to interference from his powerful political connections, the charges were reduced to manslaughter. He pleaded guilty and avoided a trial.

Daniel Leo, the director of Pacific Rugby Players Welfare (PRPW) wrote an extraordinary open letter to World Rugby this week, to rethink their decision about nominating Kean.

“You may have thought as Pacific Islanders, we would fall in line in support of Kean,” Leo wrote. “But it is extraordinary to anyone involved in the game in the Pacific that Kean is even on the ballot. His time in office has become a byword for intimidation, vindictiveness, corruption and self-dealing, nepotism, and the threat and realisation of violence. This is all conducted in plain sight.

“I make no comment about why the Fédération Française de Rugby would support Kean’s nomination to Exco. Or why the current chairman would allow his nomination to be seconded by the Fiji Rugby Union, which the man known in his own country as ‘Killer Kean’ runs in the manner of an executive chairman.

“So, I find myself asking this obvious question: why does World Rugby have some of the most elaborate and exhaustive eligibility checks for those who play the game but apparently no checks for someone wanting to run the game?”

It was a huge embarrassment for Beaumont. As protocol demanded, the Fiji Rugby Union (FRU) had to withdraw Kean from the ballot, which they did under pressure from World Rugby, on Tuesday. Had Leo not come forward though, Beaumont and Laporte were happy to have Kean’s support. They also, in all likelihood, still have the FRUs support in the vote.

Coronavirus offers a chance for change

With rugby in complete global lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the fragile economic state of the sport at club and provincial level has been laid bare.

As the world looks at ways to pick the pieces of broken economies and societies, Pichot offers the chance for rugby to change. He has been backed by former World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward while New Zealand’s former coaches Steve Hansen and Graham Henry have also stressed it’s time for a change in rugby.

Agustín Pichot has actively brought the International Rugby Players’ Association into his confidence and wants to give them a seat at World Rugby’s table.

He also wants to formalise closer ties with equity partners such as giant investment group CVC, which spent R4.4-billion purchasing a 27% stake in England’s Premiership and another R2.6-billion buying a piece of PRO 14.

CVC is reportedly looking at spending R6.4-billion on a 14% share of the Six Nations and has eyes on other global rugby programmes. A World rugby member told Daily Maverick: “We are all talking to CVC, we all know it, so why don’t we include them at the table?” Which is precisely what Pichot wants to do. An investor that size has to be part of the discussion of the global game at a formal level.

“It was clear to me and many others long before the Covid-19 outbreak that the game was in need of reshaping and restructuring. It really is a no-brainer,” Pichot told this week.

“In the time before the coronavirus, the game was not managed in a modern way. Going forward, World Rugby needs to find new ways to interact and engage with the member unions, the players and with private equity. There are issues that have to be addressed but they must be done in a modern way.

“Everybody is waiting for the green light. Why not use this time to look at a restructure, so that by the time play resumes we are ready to start putting plans into place?”

In more sedate times this election would not ripple beyond rugby’s relatively small pond. Despite World Rugby’s many claims to the contrary, the sport is globally small in terms of support and money and for the well-heeled Six Nations countries, life is comfortable.

Change would represent a disturbance of their plush existence where the Six Nations tournament and November Tests bring great revenue to England, France, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy.

The four-yearly Rugby World Cup (RWC) rakes in more money for World Rugby. The 2019 tournament earned the organisation £360-million (R7.9-billion), of which £60-million (R1.32-billion) has been earmarked for tier two nations. The Six Nations countries and the four making up South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby (Sanzaar) are the other major beneficiaries from the income derived from that tournament. It highlights the biggest problem of the current structure.

This is at the heart of the problem in terms of growing the game and therefore strengthening its future. Rugby is still a niche sport and to break out of that category, real expansion is necessary. But the expansion will only work with sustained investment and proper competition structures.

Piecemeal fixtures are not growth, they are exhibitions. Pichot understands this and wants to challenge the status quo. Beaumont claims to want to do the same, yet in four years on his watch, nothing has changed.

How much has the game changed in the professional era?

There are 119 nations affiliated to World Rugby, but there have only ever been four different World Cup winners (admittedly from a low nine tournaments). 

More interestingly, only eight different teams have made the RWC semi-finals while the competitiveness of teams outside of tier one (the Six Nations and Sanzaar countries) remains poor.

Japan beat Ireland and Scotland at last year’s World Cup and Uruguay beat Fiji in an all-tier-two clash. The reality is that performances of tier two nations have not improved much in the World Cup because they are not given a fair deal. Pichot wants to change that.

World Cup performances are the closest the game has to a measurement of whether there is a narrowing between the haves and the have nots. It’s the only time, every four years, where tier one and two nations clash en masse. And it makes for poor reading.

In 1999, at the sport’s first professional RWC tournament, there were 18 matches between tier one and two nations, 16 going the way of tier one teams.

The average score was 46-13 with England’s 101-10 win over Tonga the biggest and France’s 28-19 victory of Fiji, the narrowest.

In 2003 things became worse for tier two with the second-stringers losing all 24 contests against tier one nations by an average score of 58-13.

At that tournament in Australia, the Wallabies thrashed Namibia 142-0 while England pasted Uruguay 111-13. There were also two scores in the 90s. It marked perhaps the lowest point in the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. 

In 2007 things weren’t much better with the tier one nations winning 23 of 24 cross-tier pool clashes by an average score of 51-12. New Zealand were the bullies-in-chief, beating Portugal 108-13 while Australia thumped Japan 91-3.

Fiji though, scored a famous 38-34 win over Wales and advanced to the quarterfinals where they took eventual champions South Africa to the wire.

In 2011 there was a slight improvement in performance by the tier two nations with Tonga beating France in the pool stages but again, it was the lone standout result. In all, tier one won 23 of 24 matches by an average score of 48-10.

And in 2015 the story was much the same with 23 out of 24 clashes going the way of tier one by an average score of 44-13, Japan’s epic 34-32 win over the Springboks being the lone exception.

At RWC 2019 in Japan, the first to be hosted by a tier two nation, the trend was much the same. In 25 matches between the tiers, 23 were won by tier one with Japan’s wins over Ireland and Scotland the only two victories by a tier two nation. The average winning score was 41-10 with New Zealand’s 71-9 win over Namibia the most points scored by a team in a match. The biggest margin of victory was New Zealand’s 63-0 thrashing of Canada.

The trend shows slight improvement, but the gap is still vast and in six RWCs in the professional era there have only been seven tier two upsets in 139 games. It’s hardly a global game.

Pichot has been vocally challenging the old guard on social media platforms and in multiple interviews. The race for the leadership is tight and he is trying to cajole those unions that could swing the vote his way.

There has been a spike in rugby interest recently because of RWC 2019, which produced some strong television viewership figures. Springbok captain Siya Kolisi’s rags to riches story resonated globally and briefly attracted non-rugby media to the sport. But it was a blip.

A World Rugby study indicated that “interest in the sport” grew from 341 million in May 2018 to 405 million by November 2019. The metrics of that “interest” are not explained and it reveals little about how this will change or benefit the game.

The only real change will come from the people that make decisions. Beaumont has had his four years and retained the structure largely as it was. Pichot should have the chance now to put his words into action, for the sake of the sport. DM


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