Lapasset: Rugby must break its money obsession

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The Independent Online

Removing the selfishness of a ‘me not we’ attitude in rugby union should be paramount among the game’s priorities for 2009, IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset has said.

In his New Year message on the state of the game, Lapasset insists that rugby must consider a wider collective and forsake the policy of individual gain at the expense of others.

Lapasset conceded “At this time, the north and the south are more and more divided, partly because the economies are different. Nor is this true only of rugby. In so many sports, the best players are in Europe where the markets and economies are much bigger. Look at football.

“But if we allow this to be maintained we are in danger of devaluing the game in other parts of the world. The fact is, economy cannot be the only criteria; it must not be the pinnacle of our strategy.”

Nowadays, money seems to occupy every professional rugby man’s waking moment. From player to official to supplier, making as big a personal pile seems to have become the driving force. Lapasset intends to do something about it during his tenure in office.

Why is the game always talking about money, I ask him at his Paris office overlooking an anonymous side-street in the largely unfashionable 9th arrondissement?

“We are talking all the time about money because the people around us are talking about it first. Their competitions are in place and their money is assured but they have no vision for the rest of the world. That is our problem….at the IRB.”

Lapasset denies that money represents the Board’s sole ambition. “Money is not the only thing we need. We also need to know how to build the game around the world first. But to do that, we need to manage and organise more competitions and receive more money.”

The affable 61 year-old Frenchman from Tarbes, makes little effort to hide his frustration that the IRB is in a strange position as the governing body of its sport. Leaving aside the Rugby World Cup which is held only once every four years, it is a sport where annual tournaments of huge interest generate millions of pounds that are out of the reach of the governing body. Lapasset thinks this is an anomaly.

“Our difficulty is, these competitions, like the Six Nations Championship, the Tri Nations and the Heineken Cup, are traditional but they are in the control of private companies, not of the IRB. I asked a recent IRB meeting if it was possible for us to take control of these competitions because the first question for the IRB to become a really international organisation is the need to find some way to put the interests of the game and the Union first, not just to earn money and pay so much of it into the professional system.

“This is because in the professional system just 2-3% of players are professional. The rest are amateurs. Yet we have to manage the global game. There is a lot of money for this 2-3% but for the rest of the game, very little. That is the problem of the IRB and it is a problem I have seen coming for sometime.

“Now, with the economic crisis, it is time to see if there is a new way that is possible to administer the game. We need to find new ways and strategies so that the game can become a really top sport for everyone, not that very small percentage of professional players. We need to define the strategy of rugby in a different way.”

A key solution to this dilemma would be a global season, he believes. But this is an old chestnut which too many of his predecessors in office have long studied and finally abandoned as unworkable. Even this ebullient, normally sanguine Frenchman is realistic about its chances.

“It is my dream to have a global season and it is in the interests of both hemispheres that we should create it. But to do that we must share the revenues to help countries like Fiji keep their players and organise strong competitions.”

What Lapasset wishes to see first and foremost is a change of attitude among individual countries, a decline of the ‘grab, grab’ philosophy in favour of a ‘what would be best for the game’ approach. On this topic, he speaks with some authority.

In the final years of the 1900s, France was a country with its own financial backing and TV rights deals for its participation in the old Five Nations Championship. This had been the case for sometime. But when he took over as Chairman of the French Federation de Rugby (FFR) in 1992, Lapasset revisited this arrangement and eventually proposed drastic changes.

“I decided we should join the Four Home Nations and put the economic benefits that France enjoyed at the disposal of the Four Unions. So, from 2000 when Italy joined, we became the Six Nations and began a new vision.

“When I first proposed this, many people in France came to me and said, ‘Are you crazy, French rugby will lose much money’. And it is true, we did lose a lot of money for two years. But there was a greater need, a stronger vision than just what would be good for us. At the end of the day, we increased the value of the Six Nations and everyone benefited.

“Now, we need to do the same with the global game, not just think of ‘my country’ and ‘my money’. If we did this, it would promote the game in every country. We need more club competitions in Europe, for example, and also find a way to include countries like Portugal, Romania and Spain at international level in a European competition.

“We must open our eyes, have a new vision. Rugby is a good sport and we need to promote the game before new audiences, with support from Governments and sponsors.”