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Rugby Matters: Don’t mess up this crucial changeover

AS everybody in sport, and in particular athletics,  knows exchanging the baton is a fraught business process, heavens know we have watched enough GB teams make a Horlicks of it at major championships around the world, although in fairness they are much improved recently.

It’s trickier than it looks. If the incoming runner is approaching too fast you are in trouble, ditto if said runner is tiring and approaching too slowly. If the recipient blasts away from his or her crouched position too soon it’s all over but similarly if they tarry too long it gets very messy and all momentum is lost. Tears and recriminations often follow.

The key is timing. The baton most certainly should never lose speed and in an ideal world there is a natural slingshot element to most good changeovers.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to Sunday’s vote for the chairmanship of World Rugby. I will leave it to others  to drill down into the specifics that differentiate Bill Beaumont and Gus Pichot and have in any case lobbed in my tuppence worth over the years. Instead I want to concentrate on the manifest need for a passing over of the baton and how that should best be implemented for our sport.

Of all the stats, facts, and figures, banded around recently one made me sit upright. It came when Sir Clive Woodward mentioned the respective ages of the candidates – Beaumont 68 and Pichot 45. It was interpreted as an ageist comment but on the contrary I viewed it was a stark reminder that they represent very different generations.

Later this year will see the 25th anniversary of rugby turning professional, but we have yet to see anybody from the professional era serve as chairman of first the IRB and then World Rugby. That simply can’t continue.

Bill Beaumont
Tour of South Africa: Bill Beaumont and Syd Millar on Lions duty in 1980. Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

Beaumont finished his distinguished rugby career after one concussion too many in 1982, 13 years before the game he loves took its quantum leap into the unknown.

During his time he played Test rugby against just eight teams – the other four teams that constituted the Five Nations, the three SANZAR giants and noisy upstarts Argentina. That was his rugby world, that is his rugby DNA. Amateur game, old traditions, just a few elite nations who really counted.

Pichot in contrast started his Test career in 1995 and all but one of his 71 Test caps came in the professional era. He turned his back on the prevailing amateur culture in Argentina and sought to make a living in England with Bristol and Richmond and then in France with Racing. During his Test career he played against 17 different teams from around the world.

That is his rugby DNA. Professional game, itinerant professional around the world, numerous potential opponents.

Beaumont has been in charge for four years and although talking up radical change nothing has noticeably improved. Japan delivered a cracking World Cup but we knew they would and that was down to their efforts. Elsewhere, we still have ‘project players’ despite all sorts of fighting talk, the game still treats T2 nations like second class citizens, the good governance and so called democracy of World Rugby is a hideous Orwellian parody in which all nations are supposedly equal but some receive three votes while others are granted just one. 

Pacific Island players and their nations are still taken for granted, there is still not a twitch of movement towards bringing some true meritocracy into the game and having some form of promotion and relegation in the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship.

Belatedly as Beaumont realised the Pichot challenge is for real, he insisted he would order an independent review of Rugby’s governance but frankly that is 40 years overdue and he could have implemented that at any stage over the last four years. And why no live-streamed debate ahead of this election. World Rugby could easily have organised that.

So for me it’s manifestly time for a changing of the baton, it has to happen eventually, and actually it should happen now. Beaumont and his generation are slowing badly, the lactic is kicking in. He means well and the spirit is willing but his recent tenure has stalled and spluttered. The new rugby world is overtaking him and his ilk at an alarming rate.

But if Pichot gets impatient and blasts off too early, if he promises too much too soon, rugby will mess up the handover entirely. 

Many in the old rugby world, those we are rightly expecting to cede a little power, need some sort of assurance that the brave new world will not result in their demise. It won’t, they are still powerhouse rugby nations, but they need a reassuring arm around their shoulders.

Covid-19 has come at a bad time in that respect. Pichot needed to hit the road again, press the flash and provide that personal assurance. I also wonder if it was not a mistake to go solo, a respected and trusted world figure from one of the SANZAR nations might have helped that reassurance process and helped the changeover.

The best relay runners always look for a solid changeover without alarms and dramas…only then do they hit the turbos and make a difference.

BRENDAN GALLAGHER

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