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World Rugby's victorious chairman must initiate a change in course for the sport

Jonathan Bradley


 

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Tight call: World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont faces a late surge in competition from rival election candidate Agustin Pichot

Tight call: World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont faces a late surge in competition from rival election candidate Agustin Pichot

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Tight call: World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont faces a late surge in competition from rival election candidate Agustin Pichot

In times such as these, when genuine live games feel an increasingly distant memory, rugby's boardroom battle has been an unexpected boon, manna from heaven for those in need of a sporting fix at a time when any new storyline is seized upon with unprecedented fervour.

Originally thought to be an unopposed election with incumbent Sir Bill Beaumont ploughing on for another term as World Rugby chairman, the announcement of Argentine Agustin Pichot's candidacy initially did little to alter the image of a fait accompli.

But the former Pumas scrum-half, and Beaumont's vice-chairman for the past four years, embarked upon a spirited media campaign over recent weeks in his effort to break up rugby's established order.

Charismatic and with playing feats such as leading Argentina to third place at the 2007 World Cup still fresh in the mind, his late candidacy appeared to gain a surge of momentum in the days leading up to the opening of voting on Sunday.

If it was his assertion that we need a worthy successor to Jonah Lomu Rugby 23 years on from the sport's last decent video that gained the most headlines, the manifesto of the oft-outspoken 45-year-old contains further progressive points such as calling for the Lions to tour the Americas while criticising the very voting system - where the likes of Romania, USA and Fiji possess only one vote each compared to the three of Ireland, their Six Nations rivals, and the competing nations of the Rugby Championship - that has rendered him such an underdog in this process.

Beaumont's campaign, meanwhile, was beset by controversy last week having been seconded by the Fiji rugby union chairman, Francis Kean, a figure convicted of manslaughter in 2007 and stood down after fresh allegations of homophobia. The former English captain, though, seemed to steady the ship with his own acknowledgement of the need to revamp the game. While it was tempting to pitch the election as old versus new, established order versus revolution, dress shoes versus white trainers, in truth the personalities differ more greatly than the manifestos.

With voting closing on Thursday, it will be a further two weeks before we have the result even if the early indications are that Beaumont has, with the support of the Six Nations bloc, seen off the surprising challenge. And while the many column inches devoted to the election during an otherwise barren news cycle have pitched this as a battle for rugby's soul, the battle now for the victor is for rugby's future.

Beaumont's running mate Bernard Laporte ruffled feathers early in the piece by suggesting the Champions Cup could be ditched in favour of a World Club Cup. Not for the last time during the unprecedented landscape of the coronavirus pandemic, it set clubs against the arbiters of the international game.

Last week, EPCR chair Simon Halliday warned that World Rugby could not simply assume that the European game would make way for Test action should it be safe to resume rugby come the autumn.

Cash, amid the unexpected loss of crucial revenue from gate receipts and television deals, are the chief concerns for the game's various competing interests with the stoppage highlighting a truth already long acknowledged - the current financial model simply doesn't work.

Exeter aside, Premiership clubs have been burning through money for years, loss-making entities despite a relatively robust television deal while their most successful side of recent seasons - Saracens - still look sure to be a second tier side when rugby resumes after breaches of the salary cap.

There are already fears in France that high-profile clubs could go to the wall should private investors see the pandemic test their commitment to game and, more locally, the PRO14's struggles to generate comparable income to their European neighbours are well-documented.

While the southern hemisphere has accounted for the past four World Champions - the Webb Ellis trophy split between the All Blacks and South Africa since 2007 - their domestic competition is struggling too.

New Zealand clubs announced a review of its structures yesterday with chief Mark Robinson admitting that there was a feeling it was necessary to ensure "our Super Rugby remains relevant, sustainable and our fans are entertained and engaged."

Given the dwindling crowds, there is evidence to suggest that isn't the case with Don Mackinnon, chairman of the Blues who will head the committee, admitting that the impact of covid-19, presumably especially prevalent for cross-border competitions such as Super Rugby and the PRO14, must now be taken into consideration.

"All of the Super Rugby licenses were up for renewal in 2020 and a review was already under way as part of that, however the impact of Covid-19 creates another dimension and means we need to take a broader look at how we continue the 25-year legacy of Super Rugby for New Zealand," he said in the statement.

The mood music in Australia is more stark, with interim executive Paul McClean and Wallaby Matt Toomua having in recent days both questioned whether a more domestic competition would be better suited to both the times and wishes of supporters.

While there is clearly hardship ahead, most pertinently the off-the-field job losses sure to be suffered, this unforeseen shock can be used as a chance to recalibrate what was already a broken model. It's what makes this election so important.

Soon we can confirm who will be leading the charge towards rugby's future. The precise direction remains unknown but it's clear that a change in course is required.

Belfast Telegraph