Rugby faces a global warning

With professional rugby battling the planet's biggest sports for media exposure and commercial gain, is the sports governing body doing all it can to win the hearts and minds of the world outside its traditional market? We catch up with the man whose damning report says not
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The Independent Online

The IRB labelled it deeply flawed. The conspiracy theorists suggested it was the work of Premier Rugby.

Sections of the Scottish media said it was the brainchild of the French and English clubs, designed to increase their power base.

Others claimed it was cooked up by the same group that had so strenuously backed Japan's failed bid for the 2011 World Cup.

It is fair to say that the Putting Rugby First report has set tongues wagging since its publication in July.

Its authors say its raison d'être is nothing to do with any of the above.

It claims the IRB structure is undemocratic, says World Cup hosting decisions have been short-sighted, insists the IRB has missed the golden chance to get rugby back into the Olympics and that the sport's global appeal seldom reaches beyond the boundaries of the traditional rugby-playing nations.

What has not been revealed, until now, is the complete background to the document that has fuelled fresh debate over the future of the game.

The origins of the report can be traced back to 2005, and that infamous vote on the hosts of the 2011 tournament.

The smart money (as it turned out, not so smart) was on the seven-week circus going to Japan.

Given the successful FIFA World Cup in Japan and Korea in 2002, the Japanese had proved they were able to host a major sporting event and, for rugby union to expand its profile into a new market, they fitted the bill immaculately.

The votes were cast, fingers were crossed and, to the dismay of much of the rugby public and the Japanese bid team - supported at the time by the likes of Martin Johnson and Jason Leonard - New Zealand were declared the winners.

Quentin Smith, chairman of Sale Sharks and co-author of Putting Rugby First, picks up the story: "Like a number of people I was very surprised. It looked like a regressive step," says Smith. "I love New Zealand, I went out with a New Zealander for 10 years. If it were closer I'd live there.

"But it just seemed wrong that it should go to a foundation country when we're in a very aggressive market for sport and we need to find new markets.

"I looked into it and started to find out all sorts of things about how the vote was managed and that 40 minutes before the votes were cast it was decided they would do the vote in secret, so nobody quite knew who was voting for what.

"I started to interrogate this, writing letters and e-mails and getting lots of attention through it.

"I was getting a long way, then the Japanese said to me, 'listen, you're being too closely associated with us, even though we're not paying you or instructing you - we've been talking to you - but back off, this could jeopardise our chances of 2015.' So I backed off and let it go."

Two years later, Smith recounted this tale to a group of wealthy acquaintances in a Paris restaurant on the eve of the World Cup semi-finals. They were outraged and requested that Smith pick up the paper trail again.

"I started doing some proper investigation into how the IRB is run. I came up with lots of information and we decided we would then look at publishing it," he says.

Smith recruited the services of some colleagues at law firm Addleshaw Goddard and teamed up with fellow co-author William Field from management consultancy Spectrum Value Partners.

"We needed a little bit of a financial lift for the actual publication of the report which came from the people who had asked me to look into it but there wasn't anyone who gave us financial support who had a vested interest," he insists.

The report was published and circulated in July 2008 to over 1,000 rugby administrators.

But it was not until an open letter was sent by the authors to the IRB in September, requesting for a response to the six goals (see table, right) they set for rugby to become a truly global game, that the Dublin-based organisation entered the debate.

The IRB argued the report was "deeply flawed" and said it "clearly ignores the substantial development work done by the IRB and Member Unions over the past 10 years."

They pointed to the $US50 million invested in growing the game world-wide, the newly created tournaments in Oceania, the Americas, Asia and Europe and the growth of the World Cup since its inception, and replied to each of the six goals in turn, noting that the joint award of both the 2015 and

2019 World Cups next July increased the chances of a non-traditional country hosting one of those events.

The fly in the ointment there could be the fact that the tournament in New Zealand - where Putting Rugby First argues the market is saturated - is set to make a £10.7m loss for the IRB. As a result, a bid from a foundation union such as England that could guarantee a huge profit could be favoured in 2015.

"How appalling is it for a host nation to be scheduling a loss at this stage?" says Smith. "It's a wonderful place, it's got no flaws, but it's a small economy.

"Adidas tell us they can't sell another All Blacks shirt in New Zealand. Everyone who wants one has got one."

IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset refused to publish the full-length reply to Putting Rugby First's initial letter.

"It was frustrating that we were stalled on that basis," he says. "Everything we've done has been open and honest and we've got nothing to hide, so when we finally get a reply from the chairman of the IRB I thought, in the spirit of openness and fairness, it would be sensible to publish that reply, but he said no.

"I've replied to him explaining why I thought it would be fair and I've not had a response.

"We have talked in the report about transparency, about open governance, about actually running rugby as you would a major corporation. On the one hand the IRB say 'we've got a website and you read what you want through the site'. On the other hand, doors get slammed in your face. It's run like a club - that's part of the global frustration if you're not in the club - it's equivalent to the Bullingdon drinking club."

The argument that the IRB's structure is undemocratic is difficult to pour cold water on. The eight foundation countries have two votes each on the IRB council. The Tier 2 nations have one each, and there are just six more spread out over the remaining 103 member unions.

The fact that the bulk of players and money flowing into the sport comes from those top eight countries is also a valid counter-point that the IRB rightly makes. But it's the representatives of the foundation members on that council that Smith also has a problem with.

"The council members are supposedly the key decision makers, although they don't meet that often," he says. "They're the people who are supposedly the determined characters, they've got a massive responsibility to make change.

"But I believe, from experience of meeting some of these council members, that very often they don't go with a mandate. They go as someone who captained their national team in 1948, supposedly someone who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of rugby in their jurisdiction and therefore they know what to do.

"They make assumptions. They don't go with clear instructions or with clear authority. You're just relying on their experience, their outlook and their personal views, embodied in someone who is one of the great icons of the game. It's just not good enough. It's not the way you run a business."

The fact that those behind the report - described in the document as "a diverse collection of professional rugby administrators, sponsors, supporters, and former players, from both small and large rugby nations," remained anonymous drew criticism from its detractors. Would the public approval of one of its high profile backers not have helped the cause?

"The reason for not going into who helped us was because there is nothing personal in this," argues Smith.

"It would be a distraction and either the report stands or falls on its merits or it's not worth reading."

While many of Putting Rugby First's arguments are valid and well-founded, the IRB were disappointed that they weren't contacted directly before the paper was published. Whether they will engage in further debate in public remains to be seen.

"If I was the IRB I'd have invited me over to Dublin, put a big, meaty paw round my shoulder, closed the door and said 'right, what the fuck are you up to? You're not going to go away so what can we do to work with you?'" says Smith.

That phone call is unlikely to be made any time soon, but the IRB is being far from inactive. Returning the game to the Olympic family is one of their five strategic goals, with presentations being made recently to the International Olympic Committee.

If the IOC welcomes rugby back, it would be a seminal moment for the game. One that would earn the IRB huge respect.


1. Published in July 2008, an independent report on the health of rugby union

2. Backed by an anonymous group described as 'a diverse collection of professional rugby administrators, sponsors, supporters and former players, from both small and large rugby nations'

3. Says rugby is failing to maximise its opportunities to grow internationally

4. Labels the IRB unrepresentative and undemocratic

5. Set six goals designed 'to help rugby move towards a more genuinely global future'


1. Making the IRB structure more democratic

The IRB said: Those that provide the bulk of players and money into the game should have the bulk of the representation.

2. Good corporate governance IRB:

The IRB applies corporate governance and management best practice. It has a good working relationship with all stakeholders in the game, including IRPA, and regular meetings with key stakeholders around the world are now commonplace.

3. Five-year plan:

IRB: Pointed towards its strategy document available to read on

4. Specific plans with measurable objectives

IRB: "Each year the IRB creates an annual operational plan that refers back to the Strategic Plan, all areas have KPIs and KMDs. Same applies to annual Union Trust grants and our more targeted strategic Investments.

5. RWC 2015 in a prioritised territory

IRB: Council decided to tender both RWC 2015 and 2019 at the same time. One of the reasons for that was to increase the likelihood that a RWC will go to a non-traditional territory.

6. Rugby in the Olympics

IRB: The IRB has been working very hard for re-inclusion in the Olympics. The inaccurate report doesn't help rugby's campaign as it paints an inaccurate picture of rugby. Go to YouTube and type in Rugby is Reaching Out to see the quality of our Olympic materials.


1. Strong and effective leadership by the IRB

2. Maximise the profile, profitability and value of Rugby World Cup

3. Increase the number and competitiveness of unions at Tier One

4. The increased participation in rugby worldwide

5. Rugby rejoining the Olympic Games


97 per cent of the 33 million viewers of the 2007 RWC final came from the foundation unions.

TWO votes each given by the IRB Council to the eight Foundation Unions. ONE each to four 'Tier 2' countries.

103 remaining IRB members share SIX votes through continental representative bodies.

75 per cent majority required for key decisions, it takes just four Foundation Unions to 'veto' proposals that might have been agreed by the other 111 members.

£10.7m loss expected to be incurred by the 2011 RWC.

This story was sourced from International Rugby News