Governance reform amidst a pandemic: the unenviable task facing World Rugby’s re-elected chairman, Sir Bill Beaumont

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Sir Bill Beaumont has won the race to be re-elected World Rugby’s chairman for another four years.

The former England and Lions captain saw off a spirited challenge from his vice-chairman, Agustín Pichot, who had vowed to shake up rugby union in order to capitalise on its growing international appeal following the success of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Throughout the campaign, Pichot positioned himself as the great reformer in contrast to the more conservative Beaumont. That approach nearly worked. Shortly before the voting closed on 30 April, some sources believed the vote was as close as 24-23 in Beaumont’s favour, with Japan and Rugby Africa yet to declare their votes. In the end, there was to be no upset – Beaumont won by 28 votes to 23, winning the unanimous support of the Six Nations in the process.

For Beaumont, there is little time to dwell on his victory. Along with his new vice-chairman Bernard Laporte, Beaumont needs to quickly build bridges with the Sanzaar nations (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina), all of whom voted for Pichot.

Much of Pichot’s election bid focused on the growing concern that World Rugby has been too slow to reform in response to the game’s growing international appeal. This view is shared by many of Pichot’s supporters, particularly New Zealand. In a recent piece for the Daily Mail, former England World Cup winning coach Sir Clive Woodward weighed into the debate by describing World Rugby politics as “outdated and immovable”.

Beaumont is all too aware of these concerns, and promised as one of his key manifesto pledges to organise a major independent governance review of World Rugby. He acted quickly. Within 24 hours of winning re-election, Beaumont appointed British Olympic Association chairman Sir Hugh Robertson to lead the review. We analyse below some potential governance changes that may be considered as part of this review.

Restructuring the World Rugby Council’s weighted voting system

World Rugby’s core governance rules are set out in the World Rugby Handbook, which comprises a set of Regulations and Bye-Laws. Bye-Law 9 contains detailed provisions governing the composition and voting procedures of the Council, which is the supreme legislative authority in respect of the affairs of World Rugby.

Bye-Law 9.4 sets out a complex weighted voting system for Council decisions, which favours the more well-established Unions. For example, Bye-Law 9.4(b) grants the Member Unions of each of the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship nations an additional vote (assuming they have qualified for the two previous World Cups). On top of this, Member Unions satisfying certain criteria set out in Bye-Law 9.4(d) are awarded an additional vote. Notably, one of these criteria requires the relevant Member Union to have achieved an audited average annual turnover greater than £20 million over the previous four-year period.

Assuming no World Cup upsets, the Council’s voting system effectively operates as follows: “Tier 1” nations comprising the ten Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams are awarded three votes apiece. Two votes are then allocated to the six regional associations and Japan, with one vote each for the remaining seven Member Unions – Canada, USA, Uruguay, Georgia, Romania, Samoa and Fiji.

In other words, 30 of the 51 votes on offer are held by ten teams. The potential unfairness of this weighted system was demonstrated in Beaumont’s recent election victory – the Six Nations’ support for Beaumont (when combined with the support of Rugby Europe) gave him 20 of the 26 votes needed, and immediately put Pichot on the back-foot. This reality was not lost on Pichot, who remarked: “That is not the democracy of the 21st century.”

It is also worth noting that this voting system applies to all Council decisions – not just the World Rugby chairman elections. Its skew in favour of the Tier 1 nations, and particularly the Six Nations, is a systemic issue and Pichot is not the only person to have felt its harsh effects. Last year, for example, a push by the Sanzaar nations to create a new Nations Championship (a test championship involving all Tier 1 nations) was thwarted by the Six Nations Unions, who refused to provide their backing.

There will undoubtedly be pressure from the Sanzaar nations for the governance review to consider an overhaul of the Council’s voting system. However, such an exercise would also need to address the conflicting concern that the Tier 1 nations as a whole are overrepresented, to the detriment of smaller nations. Certainly, the system is out of kilter with the voting systems of other international sports bodies – for example, each of FIFA’s 209 member associations has one vote in the FIFA presidential election. Whilst it would be unlikely for Robertson’s review to propose a universal one-country, one-vote system, there could conceivably be more targeted proposals, such as a separate voting system for certain decisions that affect all Member Unions and Associations. These could include, for example, decisions around the allocation of funding within the sport, as well as determining future chairman elections.

Fostering a more diverse Executive Committee

Concerns have also been raised in relation to the lack of diversity on World Rugby’s Executive Committee (the Committee), which is separate from the Council and is responsible for formulating and overseeing the implementation of World Rugby’s strategic plan.

The Committee has often been labelled an “old boys’ club” in the media – indeed, in his regular column for The Guardian, rugby journalist Robert Kitson recently pointed out that there are more men named Brett than there are women on the newly appointed Committee.

Robertson’s review could be the opportune moment to tackle this issue head-on. Amongst the range of measures which the review could consider is the introduction of gender quotas. In this regard, it is worth noting that World Rugby’s Bye-Laws already contain provisions which aim to increase gender diversity on the Council. For instance, Bye-Law 9.1(e) permits each Member Association to appoint an additional Council representative, provided that that representative is female. It may be that the review proposes similar amendments to Bye-Law 10 (which governs the membership of the Committee). This would be a modest change, but a step in the right direction.

The immediate challenge of Covid-19

On top of the pressure to review World Rugby’s governance processes, Beaumont faces the immediate challenge of guiding the sport through the disruption brought on by Covid-19. The virus has added huge financial pressures to many unions who were already struggling financially. This was highlighted by USA Rugby’s recent filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy, with the organisation conceding that existing financial challenges had been “accelerated by the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on rugby activities”.

The USA is by no means the exception. England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) is predicting losses of up to £50m over the next 18 months due to the virus, in part due to the closure of Twickenham, the RFU’s biggest asset. Rafts of other unions are expecting similar difficulties, including Wales, Scotland and New Zealand.

These unique challenges have led to drastic action being taken, and World Rugby has already responded by providing struggling unions with an £80m rescue package. Whilst we await the results of Robertson’s review, there is an appreciation within the World Rugby family that the governing body’s immediate focus will be on preparing contingency plans for a safe return to competitive action.

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