Two women are in the running for a seat on the governing body’s Executive Committee


Comment: World Rugby must take opportunity to increase diversity

‘A Global Sport for All – True to its Values’.

That is the title of World Rugby’s strategic plan for 2021-25, which it launched last week.

Diversity, inclusion and engagement were key themes, with this line a particular standout: “The plan also reflects World Rugby’s commitment to the success of women in rugby – the single biggest opportunity to grow the sport.”

Soon we’ll find out if that is just PR speak or a vision slowly becoming a reality.

World Rugby must take opportunity to increase diversity

A packed crowd during the 2019 World Cup in Japan (Getty Images)

A vacancy has opened up on the governing body’s Executive Committee (ExCo) after Gareth Davies was unsuccessful in his bid to be re-elected WRU chairman last year and an electronic vote on who should fill the spot will be held in early May, with the outcome announced on 12 May at the virtual World Rugby Council meeting.

There are three people in the running – Cristina Flores from Rugby Americas North (seconded by Oceania Rugby), Asia Rugby’s Ada Milby (seconded by South African Rugby Union) and the RFU’s Jonathan Webb (seconded by Rugby Australia). Will we see a woman elected to the ExCo for the first time?

There is greater female representation on the 51-strong World Rugby Council these days, but the current make-up of the ExCo does little to help the governing body shed the ‘old boys’ network’ tag, with Angela Ruggiero – one of two independent directors, along with Lord Mervyn Davies – the only female.

Little wonder that leading women’s rugby website Scrumqueens has written an open letter urging Council members to vote for a female candidate.

Emerging nations need greater voice

The ExCo is also strongly weighted towards the traditional rugby nations with Khaled Babbou (Rugby Africa) and Bob Latham (USA) the only two from outside the ‘big eight’.

Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all have representatives, as do Scotland, while former England lock Bill Beaumont and French federation president Bernard Laporte sit on the committee as World Rugby chairman and vice-chairman respectively.

Alan Gilpin, the governing body’s new chief executive, completes the current ExCo, with the 12th seat to be filled.

World Rugby must take opportunity to increase diversity

Alan Gilpin was recently announced as World Rugby’s new chief executive (World Rugby/Getty Images)

Should Flores or Milby win the election, it will not only move World Rugby closer to its own target of having at least 40% female representation on committees (although still a fair way off) but it will give a greater voice to emerging nations. If rugby wants to grow, those newer markets need to have a say in the sport’s biggest decisions.

Philippines Rugby president Milby has been involved in the sport for two decades, first as a player – she represented the Philippines in sevens and 15s – and then as an administrator. She says: “There is real strategic value in having diverse thought at the highest level to ensure rugby is the sport of choice for everyone.”

Flores has extensive experience in the sport, too, having played at amateur level and served on the boards of the Mexico and Canada unions. Her vision is to “bring a progressive, innovative and inclusive approach to leadership”.

Of course, former England full-back Webb has an impressive CV on and off the field. He not only sits on the RFU Board but is a specialist in knee surgery and sports medicine.

All three candidates are strong but this is also about the message rugby wants to send to the sport as a whole, about whether those in decision-making positions will follow up all the progressive words with deeds.

A vote for Milby (my personal pick as rugby in Asia is not currently represented on the ExCo) or Flores would signal that rugby is becoming a sport for all in boardrooms as well as on the pitch; a vote for Webb would suggest the old boys’ network is still dominating the corridors of power.

Too often these votes involve self-interest and behind-the-scenes arrangements; the classic ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’-type deals. Even when World Rugby has tried to introduce more independent-minded processes, old habits have come to the fore.

Take the hosting bids for the 2023 World Cup. South Africa was recommended by the Rugby World Cup Limited board but the Council then voted for France!

It’s one thing saying the right things about diversity and inclusion; in May we will find out if rugby is willing to follow through with actions.

Can’t get to the shops? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.