So concludes the election campaign to be World Rugby’s top dog. Voting has begun, though we will not know for sure whether Bill Beaumont or Agustín Pichot has prevailed for more than two weeks. There are, of course, mitigating circumstances but, as convoluted processes go, you might have thought lessons would be learned from the contest to host the 2023 World Cup (more on that later).
It may yet prove to be the smoothest of ballots, but a fortnight is a long time in sports politics. That the vote is secret and heavily weighted so that the Six Nations countries each get three votes, Fiji or the USA one, serves only to muddy the waters further.
On to the candidates and Beaumont has had a trying couple of weeks, what with his campaign being backed by a convicted killer who has been condemned by Amnesty International. The Fiji rugby union chairman, Francis Kean, has been denied a visa for the US but astonishingly he emerged as a key supporter of Beaumont’s bid. It is just one of this campaign’s great ironies that a key part of Sir Bill’s manifesto is a fit and proper persons test for elected officials.
To briefly recap, Beaumont has been nominated by France and seconded by Fiji. In turn, Bernard Laporte, who is running unopposed as his vice-chairman, has been nominated by the Rugby Football Union while Kean was seconded by France for a role on World Rugby’s executive committee. This was all announced nearly two weeks ago but then fresh allegations of homophobia by Kean came to light and Beaumont had to act, with Fiji pressured to stand down Kean from the World Rugby council and the election. Meanwhile, Fiji’s vote falls to Frank Bainimarama, the president of the union and who happens to be Kean’s brother-in-law and his country’s prime minister. Bainimarama, lest we forget, took charge of the country in 2006 via military coup.
It is against this backdrop that Beaumont has also had to deal with the white knight in white trainers coming up the rails. Pichot has portrayed himself as the underdog but he has gathered late momentum. For this is an election fought on the north-south divide, the traditionalist Beaumont against the revolutionary Pichot, the dinosaur versus the dynamo. Accordingly, Beaumont has undergone a bit of a rebrand, trying to come across as a bit more avuncular. Pichot has called for a new rugby computer game to spin the world game on its axis, Beaumont insists: “I’m not bad with modern technology.” You get the gist.
While Beaumont has the backing of the European stronghold, Pichot has the Sanzaar votes and has been canvassing for the support of the tier two nations. This new radical wants to shake up the existing order. Indeed, Pichot wants to spread the British & Irish Lions gospel in the Americas. That’s Argentina’s Pichot, who was appointed to the USA Rugby board in late 2018.
There is also the matter of the 2027 World Cup. Argentina had been expected to bid but Pichot recently revealed that was no longer the case and instead the union would be getting behind Australia. Pichot’s nomination in the election was seconded by Rugby Australia. It is only a couple of years ago that RA was furious to learn of his relationship with the Australian iron ore billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest – the brains behind the rebel World Series Rugby competition.
Indeed, eyebrows were raised when he appointed Pichot, not previously famous for being an expert in the field, as head of his South American mining operation. So much so that one of RA’s leading officials, Brett Robinson, reportedly demanded that Pichot declare his conflict of interest to World Rugby. It seems the pair have made up, however, because Robinson’s nomination to World Rugby’s executive committee was seconded by the Argentinian union.
Beaumont and Pichot have spent the past four years as chairman and vice-chairman respectively, but this election battle has long since been coming. According to one well-placed source, they were “watching each other’s every move” throughout the Japan World Cup and their manifestos do not differ greatly from each other. But while Pichot has decided to go it alone, Beaumont has enlisted Laporte’s services. And Laporte is a political animal.
It was he who, despite an official recommendation that South Africa should be awarded the 2023 World Cup, convinced the voters to plump for France. It seems likely Laporte fancies a crack at the top job, a year after delivering that tournament, and while that 2023 fiasco came at great embarrassment to Beaumont, clearly he recognised the Frenchman’s influence. Indeed, it was Laporte who almost convinced the uber-conservative Six Nations to back the Nations Championship proposal.
Having Laporte as his No 2 has not been without its difficulties, however. There is his role in the Kean affair and Beaumont was also forced to row back on Laporte’s recent claims that World Rugby would run a proposed Club World Cup and the Champions Cup would be ditched as a result. It is unlikely that was a slip of the tongue by Laporte who, crucially, understands the balance of power within the global game and just how much of it lies with the clubs in England and France.
We have heard plenty about a new-found cooperation between unions and clubs in recent weeks, but already the cracks are beginning to show. World Rugby wants to play Tests in October, the European clubs have balked at the idea. The best way to interpret Laporte’s comments is as planting a flag, the Frenchman aware that the coronavirus crisis has rendered the clubs weaker than usual. Because, for all that Beaumont and Pichot have both promised change, it will only happen with the say-so of the clubs, regardless of whoever accrues most votes on 12 May.