Sir Bill Beaumont and Agustin Pichot are going head-to-head to become World Rugby chairman
Opinion: The good, the bad and the ugly of the World Rugby election
There’s no live sport right now due to the pandemic but a heavy-hitting contest is happening off the field.
Sir Bill Beaumont and Agustin Pichot are both bidding to be elected World Rugby chairman. The pair have worked together as chairman and vice-chairman of the governing body for the past four years but are now going head-to-head for the top job.
The results of the World Rugby election, which also includes Bernard Laporte running unopposed as vice-chairman, will be announced at the annual Council meeting on 12 May. This year it’s being held remotely for obvious reasons.
Many are describing the race for chairman as a battle between the old school (Beaumont) and the visionary (Pichot), but this is too simplistic. There is undoubtedly a clash of styles between the two – I can’t imagine Beaumont pulling off the white trainers and suit combo that Pichot favours! – but they both have similar goals.
Look through the two manifestos and you’ll find similar messaging – global season, governance review, player welfare, participation growth, sustainable finances etc. All worthy ambitions but for them to be achieved self-interest will need to be put aside for the greater good and rugby doesn’t have a great record on that front.
Pichot has a long-term goal of dispensing with the voting system that is weighted heavily towards the traditional rugby-playing nations while Beaumont has proposed a review of Regulation Eight, which governs players’ national eligibility. Yet with such similar overall objectives this election is almost a personality contest.
The election promises and talk of reform sound great, but the political back-scratching already evident suggests that little has changed.
A quick look through the proposers and seconders for the various positions illustrates the exchange of favours so common in these situations. The unions of France and Fiji get behind Beaumont, the RFU and Romania do the same with Laporte (Beaumont’s running mate), and Fiji’s nomination for the executive committee – more of which later – was supported by the French.
Pichot’s nomination for chairman was seconded by Rugby Australia and a day later the former Pumas scrum-half told Australia’s Daily Telegraph that Argentina were set to pull out of the race to host the 2027 World Cup, leaving the path clear for Australia.
While political manoeuvring looks abundant, there are some notable absences from the list of nominations for both chairman, vice-chairman and the executive committee. For all the talk of player welfare, only two of the ten nominees have played professional rugby – Pichot and former Wallaby Brett Robinson – and only one of them has played in this century.
Being a top player isn’t a prerequisite for being a top administrator but having people with experience of the modern game in some of these major positions helps provide insight and perspective.
There are also no women nominated. World Rugby has increased female representation on the Council while both Beaumont and Pichot have spoken of the importance of the women’s game in their manifestos, but there are no women standing for a position on the executive committee.
One of those who was originally standing provides the ugliest element of this whole election. Ratu Vilikesa Bulewa Francis Kean, chairman of the Fiji rugby union, was convicted of manslaughter in 2007 and has been heavily criticised by Amnesty International for his time in charge of the country’s prison service. World Rugby has also launched an investigation into Kean following allegations of homophobia in The Sunday Times.
Those reports have led to the Fiji Rugby Union to stand down Kean from the Council – CEO John O’Connor takes his place – and withdraw his nomination for the executive committee.
A World Rugby statement said: “While it is important to stress that any allegations must be validated, following dialogue with World Rugby, the Fiji Rugby Union recognises the seriousness of the allegations made and the need for them to be fully investigated, and that it is in the best interests of the sport that Mr Kean steps down from the Council and his Executive Committee candidature be withdrawn.”
Kean’s withdrawal means that there are now seven people standing for the seven seats on the executive committee.
Kean’s nomination had cast a shadow over the election while in the race to be chairman, rugby’s financial future is likely to be central to the vote.
Pichot spoke in 2018 about how rugby was unsustainable, saying: “I’m not going to be an accomplice to rugby’s ruin.” The coronavirus crisis has highlighted just how precarious a position rugby is in, brutally exposing how the current model simply doesn’t work.
As Beaumont told Radio 5 Live at the weekend: “This is a reality check in the sport: are we doing things correctly? You are pretty foolish if you don’t learn lessons.”
Given the sport’s financial struggles, there has been plenty of talk of collaboration between clubs and unions as well as the northern and southern hemispheres. Yet the NZ Herald reported over the weekend that the election race is splitting votes in a North v South fashion.
We won’t have to wait long to see who will be elected chairman for the next four years, but whoever does win will be welcomed with an overflowing in-tray.
Instead of just talking about change they must enact change, so that rugby’s future – from the elite end to grass-roots level – is assured.
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