Rugby has not grown like it should and could have and has not widened its spectator base, suggest former England coach Clive Woodward. Photo: Reuters
Rugby has not grown like it should and could have and has not widened its spectator base, suggest former England coach Clive Woodward. Photo: Reuters

OPINION: Pichot the perfect guy to make rugby a truly global game

By Clive Woodward Time of article published Apr 15, 2020

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When the Covid-19 crisis eases and sport starts cranking back into action, it will absolutely NOT be business as normal — and that is truer for rugby than almost any sport I can think of.

Professional rugby’s financial vulnerability has been cruelly exposed and, frankly, it has always been built on shifting sands.

Rugby has not grown like it should and could have and has not widened its spectator base. It has not found the new markets which the money men wanted and we all hoped for.

If this situation continues much longer, clubs and entire unions will be in serious financial trouble. Bankruptcies and closures will be commonplace. It could all implode very quickly.

I have always found solace in the phrase "never waste a crisis". The chance to rip up the blueprint comes around once in a lifetime, if that. Use it, seize this opportunity.

And that is why I was delighted to see that Agustin Pichot is standing for the chairmanship of World Rugby next month. He has been rugby’s David in a world of Goliaths for a long time and I admire him greatly.

Gus has been the little guy taking on seemingly insurmountable odds all his rugby life; the Argentina captain when they clawed their way up the rugby ladder, and now the enlightened administrator, in his trademark white trainers and open-neck shirt, who has always sought the big picture despite the disapproval of some of the blazers who surround him in World Rugby committee meetings.

I first clocked him at the Rugby World Cup in 1999 when Argentina claimed an upset win over Ireland to put themselves on the rugby map and he went well for the Pumas in a couple of games against England in 2000 and 2002.

What struck me is that he always seemed to be battling against either the odds or the establishment. He never seemed to quite fit in and that immediately endeared him to me.

Rugby is very lucky to have such a visionary and a bundle of energy throwing his hat into the ring at such a crucial time.

Despite the success of its Sevens team, USA Rugby has not been successful in growing the 15s game much. Photo: Phando Jikelo / African News Agency (ANA)

I do not see this as a personal fight between Gus (Agustin Pichot) and the incumbent chairman Bill Beaumont and his backer Bernard Laporte. Bill is my England Grand Slam captain of 1980 and a great rugby man. I regard Bernard as a good friend, a coach I respected and an incredible rugby enthusiast.

Both have made enormous contributions. Both have worked hard for rugby’s re-emergence as an Olympic sport in the form of sevens and to grow the women’s game.

These statesmen must continue to be a part of rugby’s future but what is important now is how the game changes and transforms in a radical way. Gus is the right man at the right time to lead this charge.

Everybody knows deep down what the main problem is - the voting power all the main unions use to protect themselves. It stops rugby from moving forward smoothly in the way it should.

World Rugby will boast that there are 90-plus rugby-playing nations around the world but at their council there are only 51 votes and 10 favoured nations have three votes each which defies belief. It is embarrassing.

Argentina, Australia, England, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales have three votes apiece, Japan have two votes and then there are seven Tier 2 countries - and what a horrible condemnatory phrase Tier 2 is - who have a vote apiece. They are Canada, Georgia, Fiji, Samoa, Romania, USA and Uruguay. And six regional areas have two votes each. So, if the Six Nations and the three major SANZAAR nations vote as a block (i.e. 27 votes) they carry the day every time. 

They will always vote for their self-interest, not the global good.

This is how rugby has always rolled, to its massive detriment. That is why it’s only a middling sport globally instead of the powerhouse sport it should be.

World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot (left) and chairman Bill Beaumont speak at a press conference. Photo: REUTERS/Issei Kato

It’s why Romania - who could possibly have won a World Cup had it been staged in 1983 - have all but disappeared. It’s why Georgia have spent the last eight or nine years kicking their heels. It’s why investors have stepped back from putting money into Spanish or German rugby. What has happened to Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast who used to be World Cup teams?

Above all else it’s why the three great Pacific rugby nations - Fiji, Samoa and Tonga - have been diminished and abused, their players ruthlessly cherry-picked by those nations with the biggest budgets. Is there a single person in the rugby world who feels proud at the way the Pacific Islands have been treated?

A massive inertia and lack of collective will has settled over the game. That has to change.

Before Covid-19, rugby was ruled by the ‘haves’ with the ‘have nots’ making up the numbers. It has been ugly to observe but now many of the haves may find themselves without the funds to support domestic and Test teams.

My sense is that New Zealand, South Africa and Australia could very soon experience deep financial difficulties.

The RFU are projecting £50million lost revenue in the wake of coronavirus. If they are struggling financially you can bet all the other Six Nations are as well.

To an extent this was already happening, with suggestions that South Africa join the Six Nations, but now the stark reality is staring us in the face. We are likely to face a situation very soon in which rugby sinks or swims.

Rugby nations need to stop protecting little empires and fiefdoms. The old powers need to release their stranglehold on the game which has nearly suffocated it.

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We need to reboot with much more co-operation and more equable sharing of the World Cup profits and all revenue streams.

There must be no more poaching of players from other countries, a ruinous process which destroys those rugby nations, and we must consider a global season that is player and media friendly.

We need equality, diversity, better player-welfare, better thought-out salary caps and rugby needs to establish a wider cultural relevance to engage younger audiences.

At this unique moment I believe rugby would benefit from being viewed through the eyes of a leader who is 45, not 68.

There is a deliberately provocative line in Gus’s election manifesto which warrants close examination: ‘Women and men, we all fight for and believe in a fair, equal and more inclusive world. Do we? If so it is time to make these dreams a reality for our sport.’

Gus knows full well that there are many nations and blazers in the rugby world who don’t share that egalitarian philosophy! But he can sense that grassroots fans and the wider rugby world most certainly do and in these extreme times it is their voice that must be heard.

I wish Gus well, but more importantly I wish the game well.

Daily Mail

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