Rugby is in crisis. It is not alone. Below the billion-dollar playgrounds of the Premier League and perhaps NFL and NBA, it is one of many mid-tier sports that was running to standstill even before the Coronavirus took a morbid hold of a game in only its 25th year of professionalism.
When in times of duress, there is an overwhelming urge to turn inwards, and look to what you know, so when plumes of white smoke rose from the wood-panelled corridors of power in Dublin yesterday it was no surprise to see Sir Bill Beaumont had been anointed World Rugby chairman for a second term. There will be many in the game with high-falutin titles, who will feel at ease. This doughty, lionhearted former England and Lions captain has been a fixture in the game since the 1970s, and his promise of evolution, spoke of safe hands at the tiller in these extraordinary times.
Indeed, Beaumont fought this two-man duel rugby’s like a statesman, mostly behind closed-doors, where politicking was left to trusted media contacts, in relationships forged over glasses of red for decades, while Gus Pichot, painted as a Che Guevara-type revolutionary, seemed to be accessible to all comers. His peppy campaign, waged on social media, befitted a man 23 years Beaumont’s junior. Pichot played the disrupter, the avant garde man of the people quite exquisitely. In online polls, he romped home, whipping up enough interest to be seen as a credible contender to a rugby heavyweight who knew he could count on Northern Hemisphere votes to swing behind him while he lobbied for the remaining eight votes needed further down the rugby pyramid.
In the end, with the sole Africa vote and two Japanese votes banked, Beaumont could afford to raise a smile, as this young, wannabe conquistador was defeated. The Argentine was magnanimous in defeat and has vowed to step away from high-level administration, white trainers and all, to leave others to take rugby forward, but while Beaumont pours a triumphal pint of bitter on lockdown and takes stock of a victory that always seemed his to lose, he will know it is his second-term, one that will take him into his 73rd year, that will define his reign. There are already many who are openly questioning whether the Lancastrian is the visionary rugby needs at this time. Beaumont’s task is to surround himself with gifted administrators who can take rugby’s handbrake off and maximise its potential in growing cash-rich markets in the US, Germany and China, yet support those emerging nations much further down the financial food-chain. It is no easy task.
His inbox is already fit to burst. First will be plugging the financial gaps of a sport on its knees. Everywhere he looks, the sport is bailing out with rugby currently beached and no return date set.
A £16m government bailout to its fellow struggling code Rugby League in the UK will serve as a warning of how close rugby union will sail to going cap in hand to seek state help, much as Rugby Australia, the besieged code Down Under is having to do.
The timing of the Rugby World Cup in Japan – just months before Covid-19 took hold – will, at least, give Beaumont room to manoeuvre. There will be private Hail Marys that unlike the Euros, or the Olympic Games, their marquee event was able to take place in relative normality, give or take the odd super-typhoon.
Once the game is stabilised – and you must hope that 2021 will bring calmer waters with a highlight the Lions tour to South Africa – rugby has the usual problems to deal with; player welfare, managing spiralling wage inflation, and supporting an undernourished women’s game that is light years from the polished product it has the potential to be.
Beaumont must also use his lauded conciliatory powers to offer an olive branch to the SANZAAR unions (New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina) that uniformly threw their weight behind Pichot’s campaign for change.
For some time, there has been a feeling in the South that the Northern Hemisphere, blinded by the giddy sums of money dangled by CVC, was not sharing the spoils fairly, and whether Beaumont has the political chutzpah to force through a rejigged rugby calendar, one that would sit alongside and enhance a Six Nations competition – the game’s golden goose – remains to be seen. With Super Rugby depleted, the player drain from the South to the domestic game in the North has become a torrent with more South Africans playing in the Premiership than all the Pacific Islanders put together, leaving Australia and New Zealand feeling vulnerable and unloved.
In the Pacific Islands, an area blessed with such Godly talents that they provide 16% of all rugby union professionals, Fiji sullied their name by thrusting forward the name of Francis Kean to support Beaumont. This move threatened to besmirch Beaumont’s campaign, as his record of homophobia and manslaughter was uncovered by the inspirational Dan Leo and The Sunday Times. After being backed by Fiji and Samoa (Tonga didn’t even have a vote), you would surmise Beaumont’s camp must have come with caveats. The fact that every year there is dismay at the paucity of rewards for the travelling islanders who come to the UK’s shores to entertain the masses in November and leave with barely a dime to rub between them for their efforts. Likewise, Tier 1 tours to the islands have been far too fleeting. This disparity is something that has to be redressed before Beaumont departs in 2024, otherwise rhetoric about ‘transparency’ and ‘being united’ will feel empty and unfulfilled.
This transparency was notably absent in 2017 when the ‘closed vote’ for the 2023 World Cup handed the tournament to France, when an independent committee had recommended South Africa. It was a low point in a sport that has struggled to rid itself of its old-boys network tag.
With Bernard Laporte said to be pivotal in securing the World Cup for France, and a key protagonist in securing the pivotal votes as Beaumont’s running mate, he is now in a position as kingmaker to the governance of the game and there will be acute interest as to his motives.
So long a bitter enemy of the world’s richest league, the Top 14, in his guise as FFR president, Laporte and Beaumont will have to rejig the international calendar mindful that the game’s two most powerful independent domestic leagues have grand ambitions of their own. The club v country debate is as old as the hills, and the two must figure out how best to work together at a time when a collision course seems unavoidable, with international Tests and domestic League to be finished by the end of the year to avoid financial meltdown.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 2, 2020
If this fixture pile-up can somehow be navigated, the elephant in the room is the disjointed global calendar that to outsiders must seem loola. World Rugby’s doomed Nations Championship, was torpedoed by the Six Nations committee, last year but there are suggestions it is already having work done under the hood and is set to be reprised. It will be given go-faster stripes with a few minor tweaks in the hope it appeals to a wider church.
This pandemic-enforced impasse has given rugby time to think, time to reflect, it has exacerbated the many fault lines that exist in rugby, but it has also promised opportunity. To quote Vladimir Lenin, ‘there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen’. Well this is rugby’s moment. Administrators have chosen to put their faith in Beaumont and he has to grasp the opportunity or risk becoming obsolete; a failed professional sport. The stakes could not be higher. You can but wish him luck.
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