Not since the dawn of professionalism has rugby faced such a momentous episode in its history. From Saturday until Thursday, voting around the world will decide the direction of the sport for years to come.
The World Rugby chairman election has emerged as an event of the utmost significance.
The coronavirus lockdown has exposed many fault lines in the game and there is a global consensus that the time has come for drastic action and vital change.
Agustin Pichot (L) is up against incumbent Bill Beaumont (R) to be World Rugby chairman
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE ELECTION
WHAT IS BEING DECIDED?
The World Rugby chairman, who will be elected to a four-year term.
WHO ARE THE CANDIDATES?
Current chairman and former England player Bill Beaumont — who was elected in 2016 — and current vicechairman and former Argentina player Agustin Pichot.
HOW DOES THE ELECTION WORK?
Member unions cast their votes and a candidate who receives a majority of the votes wins. The winner is announced on May 12. If the vote is tied there is another round of voting.
The Unions have either three votes, two votes or one vote — for example England have three votes, Japan has two votes and Uruguay has only one.
There is a stark choice to be made — stick or twist? Rugby’s powers-that-be must decide whether to keep making minor tweaks to a tired model, papering over cracks and going around in circles or take giant steps to refresh and overhaul their code.
A sport with outposts all over the globe must demonstrate a real desire to broaden its appeal or just reinforce its post-colonial roots and somehow reverse a marked decline in interest and income. There are no guarantees, whichever route is chosen, but the latter option has failed already.
Clubs and unions cannot go on piling up debts and fixtures in an endless scramble to stay afloat. The game is one of too few ‘haves’ and too many ‘have-nots’, where the financial balance of power lies firmly in the north, even though the south has enjoyed a near-monopoly on World Cup glory.
The looming doomsday scenario is that the greater wealth in Europe will see the sport contract, rather than expand. Australia’s union — in turmoil at present — is facing extreme hardship and a bleak future, while there are grim projections in New Zealand too.
The pair represent a choice between a fresh start or keeping the same closed shop
It is not too far-fetched to imagine a time, soon enough, when the Wallabies and even the mighty All Blacks cannot compete due to the impact of an economic gulf and when a strong England side, backed by the cash machine known as Twickenham, relentlessly crush impoverished rivals.
Without sufficient opposition, there is no meaningful game, so rugby’s voting officials need to recognise the importance of acting for the greater good. For once.
It is high time for revenue sharing and reciprocal fixtures for all, a decluttered, streamlined calendar as part of a truly global season and less overlap between club and Test fixtures.
There is a need for promotion and relegation in the international game, to make it truly international by driving ambition and opening up new frontiers. Rugby also desperately needs fairer governance, rather than cosy cabals.
Agustin Pichot has campaigned on this ticket of reform and urgent, fundamental change. It feels like a call for revolution from a man who played for the same club in Buenos Aires as Che Guevara once did.
The former Argentina captain has pressed his claims as the right man to deliver a vital overhaul, while Bill Beaumont, who is seeking re-election, has sought to alter the perception that he has no such vision in mind.
There are similarities in their manifestos but these decorated figures are very different. This is seen as a tussle between a bastion of the old establishment and a younger outsider; a relic of the amateur era — albeit a respected, popular one, and a steady leader — versus a maverick who dragged his South American nation to the top table through the sheer force of his will.
Since announcing his candidacy Pichot has been busy and visible. He has pushed his vision through interviews and broadcasts, letters, emails, calls and online forums. He has run a slick campaign while Beaumont has retained a lower profile — no doubt diverted by World Rugby’s response to the coronavirus pandemic but also more at ease privately tapping into his vast network of contacts.
It has also been a murky, political process. At times, it has been the law of the jungle as the Lion and Puma have battled it out to become rugby’s top cat.
Beaumont’s campaign may have been hit by his ties to Fijian Rugby Union chief Francis Kean
Beaumont’s campaign has surely suffered from the support of the Fijian Rugby Union and its chairman — convicted killer Francis Kean. Action was taken to keep him at arm’s length but damage has been done.
Sportsmail can also reveal that Beaumont was supposed to sack World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper last summer after plans for an annual Nations League collapsed. The governing body’s executive committee had agreed the Australian should be dismissed but Beaumont stalled.
World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper survived after Beaumont reportedly stalled over sacking him
After the World Cup last autumn Beaumont entered into an election alliance with Bernard Laporte and it is understood that the French federation president convinced him to spare Gosper.
This was an act of self-interest. Laporte had been warned by Claude Atcher — chief executive of the 2023 World Cup in France — that various commercial deals were dependent on input from Gosper. So Laporte persuaded Beaumont to keep him and at a conference in Paris during the Six Nations, Beaumont informed the World Rugby hierarchy that it was not the time for major upheaval.
Thus, Laporte obtained a priority outcome from his Anglo-French partnership and in return he has been trying to make deals to aid Beaumont’s cause. It was Laporte who proposed Kean for a place on World Rugby’s executive committee and it is understood another inducement is the offer of France playing Tests in Fiji in the near future.
Sources have indicated that the working relationship between Beaumont and Gosper has become increasingly strained of late.
Bernard Laporte is Beaumont’s running mate in what appears to be a marriage of convenience
Meanwhile, Beaumont’s alliance with Laporte has come across as a marriage of convenience. When the Frenchman suggested an annual World Club Cup, at the expense of the current European tournaments, Beaumont poured cold water on he idea.
The major southern unions were already backing Pichot and there are rumours now of considerable unrest in the north about some of the political activity and the Kean factor in particular. But at heart this comes down to a choice of direction for the sport.
It feels like an historic watershed. Stick or twist? In 1995, the authorities decided it was time to twist. A quarter of a century on from the onset of professionalism, there is a sense that they might be about to twist again.