Sir Bill Beaumont: Re-elected World Rugby chair puts legacy on the line

Sir Bill Beaumont was re-elected World Rugby chairman on Saturday

Sir Bill Beaumont’s re-election as the chairman of World Rugby has split opinion in the rugby union world.

On the one hand, there is a faith in the former England captain’s steadiness and experience in turbulent times; on the other, a lament that the energy and vision of Agustin Pichot was unable to shake up the establishment.

But Beaumont is no fool. At the age of 68, he wouldn’t have stood for re-election if he didn’t think he had enough support to get over the line and, significantly, he knows if he stood down now he would be leaving a job half done and a legacy incomplete.

Far from looking to restore the status quo, Beaumont’s manifesto is a bold one, pledging to reach new territories, revolutionise the calendar, and make rugby union a sport for all.

On Sunday, Beaumont used his first press conference since re-election to reiterate he is a “good listener” who “brings people together”.

Those qualities will be put to the test now, with major issues to address in the short, medium and long-term.

As Beaumont himself acknowledges, the hard work starts here.

Surviving the Covid crisis

World Rugby last month announced an £80m fund to help beleaguered rugby nations through the current crisis.

Australia, a once-mighty superpower of the global game, and the USA, a possible-future superpower of the global game, are both in dire straits, while all around the world unions and clubs are forecasting financial doom.

Even the RFU – hitherto the envy of unions worldwide – are forecasting huge revenue losses, which will only be exacerbated if the November internationals don’t go ahead. Furthermore, the Six Nations’ plan to sell a stake in the Championship to private equity giants CVC is said to be on hold, as is the latest broadcasting deal.

Suddenly, no one body holds total sway over the rest, and Beaumont hopes that from the rubble will emerge a new spirit of collaboration and co-operation.

“What this pandemic has shown, is that we all rely on each other,” he said shortly after his re-election.

“We are at a crossroads, and there is a real desire from both the north and south to re-unite our game.”

Shaking up the rugby calendar

In the spring of 2017, the movers and shakers of the world game met in San Francisco to thrash out plans for a new global calendar. But the tweaks – while a nudge in the right direction – were largely cosmetic, and three years on the same problems remain over the sport’s fractured schedule.

In 2019, plans for a revolutionary Nations Championship were published. It involved the Six Nations and Rugby Championship continuing as normal, but the results counting towards a league, with cross-hemisphere matches making up the rest of the competition before a showpiece final at the end of the year. Japan and Fiji would both join the Rugby Championship, a major breakthrough for those nations.

The cash-strapped southern hemisphere countries were squarely behind it, sensing a financial lifeline, but the Six Nations unions were reticent, especially when the issue of promotion and relegation was thrust upon them.

Failing to deliver it was one of Beaumont’s main regrets in his first term, but he now feels a revised Nations Championship is firmly back in the pipeline – with renewed Six Nations support.

“There is a real feeling I get now that there will be some variant of the Nations Championship that will come back on the table,” he told the BBC last month.

To achieve this, the current international windows in the summer and autumn would be moved, quite possibly to run alongside each other, although Beaumont has played down the prospect of the Six Nations shifting from its traditional February and March slot.

However, key to all this is bringing the club game into the conversation, especially the independently-run English and French leagues.

While the clubs still contract and provide international players, they remain a crucial cog in the machine, and Beaumont ignores them at his peril – so too, the players themselves.

“I will make certain the players are right at the heart of decision-making,” he insists.

Improving new territories and emerging nations

“Our aim is to have a more representative and diverse international federation that better serves the game, not one that is seen to only support the ‘old guard’,” said Beaumont in his manifesto published earlier this year.

This area will be vital to his legacy come the end of his tenure in 2024. As a former England and Lions captain, RFU Chairman and Lions manager, Beaumont needs to shake off accusations – especially south of the equator – that he will only end up protecting the sport’s traditional heartlands.

He is certainly pledging otherwise, and has spoken about his desire to introduce viable and vibrant competitions to improve rugby union’s ‘Tier Two’ countries; in fact, he says he wants to drop that tag altogether.

More detailed plans emerged via the Sunday Times of a series of tournaments below the Six Nations and Rugby Championship – and Beaumont told the BBC at the recent Rugby World Cup that improving the level of competition outside the elite was a major priority.

A financially sustainable and high-quality competition for emerging nations would have a two-fold effect: the aim would be to improve the standards of the less-established countries, and would convince the Six Nations that relegation would not be a doomsday scenario.

“We intend to raise the standard globally,” Beaumont says.

If the Nations Championship only ran twice in every four-year cycle – and didn’t take place in Lions years or Rugby World Cup years – there may then be opportunities for cross-over matches between ‘Tier One’ and ‘Tier Two’ teams.

These fixtures could see a more equitable revenue-sharing model – currently the host union keeps 100% of the takings, a source of widespread consternation – although Beaumont says this is an issue for the individual unions, rather than World Rugby.

Other growth areas – the women’s game and 7s

Both candidates made growing the women’s game a key part of their manifestos, and Beaumont says plans are afoot on this front.

“We have already got a few ideas in the pipeline, looking at a global women’s competition with promotion and relegation,” he explained.

Meanwhile he says the Sevens game is an “incredible tool” for taking the sport into new territories.

“Teams like Kenya have won tournaments, and the Olympics in Rio was a massive game-changer; it brought rugby to the forefront,” he added. “Asia for example is a massive untapped market we need to take advantage of.”

But this is all easier said than done, with widespread fears that women’s sport for example will suffer in light of the financial constraints post-coronavirus.

“I’m challenging the World Rugby Executive, and saying we have to find the money for these competitions,” Beaumont insists.

“Women’s rugby is part of our long-term plan and we have made a commitment.”

Legacy on the line

Beaumont is perhaps fortunate to have another four years in the role, given the slow pace of change during his first term.

When he leaves World Rugby in 2024, will it be as the man who has guided the sport into a new and prosperous era?

Or will the same issues – squabbling stakeholders, vested interests, the constant conundrum between making money and player welfare, a sport torn between physicality and safety – still remain?

He will often find himself in a difficult, even helpless, position; the chairman of World Rugby is only as influential as the various stakeholders allow, but Beaumont is confident he has the engaging and authoritative touch required to effect real change.

“I like to think throughout all my rugby administration I have been able to reach consensus, and I’ve got four years to make a difference by the power of persuasion,” he says.

Having now secured re-election, Beaumont’s legacy and reputation as an administrator is firmly on the line.

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