WORDS of the beautiful rugby song, World In Union, attempt to highlight what the sport claims to be its core expression of culture and values: universality.
But, contrary to the harmonious lyrics of this delightful tune — different powerful renditions of which have been done over the years — what is supposed to be one of world sport’s major codes has been anything but all-embracing.
Calls for equality in world rugby have, however, never been louder than they are now. The marginalised world, for the first time in history, has come together with one strong voice to demand a fair share of the cake in a sport that has long been dominated by a privileged few both in policymaking and on the playing field.
The chorus of global discontent has grown at an opportune time for the game, with last week’s watershed election for the chairmanship of World Rugby — a contest between the incumbent Englishman Sir Bill Beaumont and Argentina’s Agustin Pichot — turning into a battle of hearts and minds to decide the best man to oversee the kind of revolution rugby lovers across the planet are clamouring for.
Underdog Pichot was the firm favourite of the smaller national unions worldwide and, at 45, Argentina’s legendary former captain impressed with his energy and vision, vowing that under his stewardship, the rugby would at last shed its elitist tag.
But confronted with an unprecedented situation in which change is being vehemently demanded, even the 68-year-old Beaumont came up with his own pledges for sweeping reforms, without which his narrow victory last Sunday would not have been possible. And now with electioneering over, the man who captained England as well as the British and Irish Lions will certainly find the challenges in his second tenure formidable.
Aware of his slim mandate, not addressing global grievances is something Beaumont can ill-afford. It is a point of no return in the quest for transformation in the game and, more than ever, the sport’s international governing body will be made accountable by a wider global constituency, now including the cash-strapped smaller member unions that are set to emerge even poorer post-coronavirus.
Gerald Sibanda, the former Zimbabwe utility back who has broken with tradition by becoming a recent ex-international from this country to move into administrative functions and the business side of things, has joined other like-minded personalities across the world in backing radical reforms in pursuit of parity in world rugby.
The 34-year-old sports agent strongly believes the financial unfairness and uneven playing field in world rugby can only be corrected by pulling down the barriers that put nations into groups of tiers.
“Drastic policy change is needed right now because the leading rugby nations, who are the richer countries for that matter, have a financial advantage over the smaller unions within the community of World Rugby,” Sibanda told IndependentSport this week.
“The system we have now is greatly lopsided. It looks after an elite few at the expense of everybody. Why do we need to have this tier one, tier two, tier three classification? Let’s do away with it. Why is it that these tiers exist in the first place? Because you have deliberately let the status quo flourish.
Why is country “A” found in tier one, and country “B” in tier two, and then the rest remaining outside? Because by unfair allocation of resources, you have shut others out. This system doesn’t allow the game to grow beyond a few chosen countries. It protects others and elbows out others. For example, if Scotland perform dismally at the World Cup, they still go back to being a tier-one nation and the system protects them. It’s unjust. The rest of the world cannot continue to be second-class citizens in this game.”
Sibanda’s sentiments go to the very heart of the universal integrity of world rugby with regards to the finances of the game, morality and transparency.
Let us examine this scenario: The United States is a non-traditional rugby nation. In the build-up to the World Rugby elections, the US national team coach, South African Gary Gold, said he wanted Pichot to win, hailing the Argentine as a “strong leader”.
But the US, despite not being a world rugby power, has in the past three years benefited from multi-million-dollar bailouts from World Rugby.
Such payouts to the Americans could increase in the wake of USA Rugby filing for bankruptcy in March, citing the Covid-19 crisis and “insurmountable financial constraints”.
It is an undeniable fact that rugby is the fastest growing team sport in the US and, given the size of that country, therefore quite a big fan base can be established there.
Therein lies the ethical and moral question, though: should the rugby federation of the United States of America, a wealthy nation, consume millions in bailouts from a multiple-member international body that has a very long list of poorer countries to take care of, deprived countries that need the money more to grow their game?
One such country is Zimbabwe, Africa’s sole representative at the first two editions of the Rugby World Cup back in 1987 and 1991, and potentially the second strongest rugby nation on the continent after South Africa. The whole world knows about Zimbabwe’s rich heritage in the sport, and the world-class talent it has produced. With only half of what the likes of the US and other second tiers nations get, Zimbabwe can be a force to reckon with in world rugby.
In a normal year, the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) receives a yearly grant of US$111 000 from World Rugby. Worse, due to mismanagement by a ZRU board which was dissolved in 2017, that grant has been slashed significantly. In 2018, a World Cup qualifiers’ year, Zimbabwe was allocated a measly US$55 000. And then US$61 000 for both 2019 and 2020.
It is a raw deal for the smaller countries, but it does not end there. Their players, too, face hurdles when they try to go abroad for better pay.
Sibanda — who played professionally in South Africa, Scotland and Romania — knows all about it.
“If you don’t come from the tier-one countries, you need to have at least 10 caps for your country to get signed up professionally,” Sibanda said.
“But somebody from South Africa or Scotland, for example, can walk straight into a contract without even a single provincial cap. You’re classifying people based on where they come from, denying other very good players opportunities! But look at it this way, how many very good players born in the smaller countries are playing international rugby for the big unions like England, New Zealand, Australia and France? A lot of players. But you have stringent conditions that send a wrong message that rugby isn’t a sport for all. That must change.”
The gospel of change being preached by Sibanda and others across the world has found support from the unlikeliest of sources in the form of Sir Clive Woodward, England’s 2003 World Cup-winning coach.
Writing his regular column for Britain’s Daily Mail before the World Rugby vote, Woodward threw his full weight behind Pichot, praising the former scrumhalf for his stance on the future of the game worldwide.
In fact, Woodward jested that by calling itself World Rugby, the governing body of the sport was “in breach of copyright” because rugby is not truly representative of the whole world!
“It’s just the same old carve-up we have had for a century or more,” opined Woodward.The Englishman, who was a decent football player in his youth and once had a coaching stint with Premiership club Southampton, looks at rugby in comparison with others, wishing that the sport that gave him fame can claim a place in the hearts of the world.
SIbanda, too, says rugby needs to catch up.“ICC (International Cricket Council) has done well over the years and that’s why Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and such nations can compete with the best international cricket teams on a good day,” Sibanda said.
“Fifa has made football a game for all, no discriminating. Kudos to Fifa and ICC for making their sports accessible. World Rugby has to go beyond rhetoric to change rugby. Rugby has been a professional sport since the 1990s.
World Rugby has made huge profits over the years. Surely, the time for policy change is now. Funding must increase. The hand-to-mouth method is long outdated. Look at what has happened to Argentina and Japan after funding was increased. They have vastly improved because of more money. My dream is to see this happening across the world.”
Speaking of which, the opening verse of World In Union has never been more appropriate.
It goes: “There is a dream, I feel . . . So rare, so real.”
Rare, yes, but being real is non-negotiable now.