Gareth Dyer’s RU column

Gareth Dyer
Gareth Dyer
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Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every week for the Evening Post

As a player Bill Beaumont loved a battle.

Never one to take a backward step on the pitch he is a respected authority off it having moved seamlessly from the field into the committee room following the end of his playing career.

Bill Beaumont is the chairman of World Rugby

Bill Beaumont is the chairman of World Rugby

But having assumed the chairmanship of the game’s governing body World Rugby (WR) earlier this year, Beaumont probably knew deep down that he was facing some of his biggest battles in the sport if he wanted to achieve change in the global game.

Meeting World Rugby’s stated strategic aim to “grow the global rugby family” will have its difficulties.

But to get those already dining at the top table to start taking responsibility for the wider game will define whether or not his chairmanship is deemed a success.

No doubt he went into the role with his eyes wide open.

But his comments at this month’s World Rugby Expo hinted at frustration in being able to drive positive change in the game’s existing strongholds.

The Expo confirmed what most rugby fans already knew – we have a fantastic sport that appeals across all demographics but that it will ultimately struggle to reach its potential due to the narrow-mindedness of a small number of power brokers who are holding the game to ransom.

World Rugby’s update on the state of the game rightly pointed out a number of positives of where the game is making progress.

Increased participation levels (particularly amongst women and children), the most profitable World Cup yet, the positive impact of the Rio Olympics in taking the sport to new markets and a sport that sponsors and broadcasters want to be associated with due to the principles that have always underpinned the game.

There was even the message that the country with the world’s largest population will soon become a significant player.

Yes, the Chinese have recently announced a huge sponsorship deal with one of the country’s leading companies that will transform the sport in Asia.

A deal worth $100m has been signed that will see the formation of professional leagues in both the men’s and the women’s games, a university program that will reach millions of potential players and a grass roots structure that will reach millions more.

The Chinese have always used rugby in training and developing their armed forces, pointing to the skill and value affirming ability of a game that teaches teamwork, decision making, respect and strength.

With a record number of countries now playing the game, the grassroots of the sport are strong.

But to truly build on this requires some important changes to be made at the top of the game.

A phrase commonly associated with the game in years gone by was that it was a sport for all shapes and sizes.

Whilst this was meant in terms that it catered for all physical attributes, it perhaps should have also been used in the context that all parts of the rugby union family would play an equal part in taking the game forward.

But since professionalism the idea of all shapes and sizes making it in the elite of the game has disappeared in a physical sense, and that now appears true of some of the game’s smaller participating unions.

It is all well and good to tout your sport to the economic superpowers that have only paid the game lip-service before but what about looking after those countries and teams who have already provided so much to the game but continue to be treated as second class citizens?

I, of course, refer to the likes of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Georgia and Italy.

In could be argued that the game has already travelled too far in taking the game away from its poorer nations just to keep a small band of club owners and union committee members ensconced in their power bases.

Beaumont has been tasked with trying to deliver an agreement on a global rugby season that delivers certain benefits.

Paramount amongst these is player welfare and delivering a structured season that fans can also identify with.

This would stop supporters being short-changed by games where the top players are too often missing, be that at club level or restricted from appearing in international rugby.

The big English and French clubs have gained too much economic power and are riding roughshod over those economically weaker than themselves.

Beaumont himself was forced to admit that after initial conversations with the French clubs, it was apparent they have no real interest in anything other than the strength of their own domestic competition.

The impact of all this will be evident this weekend when England face Fiji at a sold out Twickenham.

The match will raise estimated revenues of £10m for the RFU from which each England player will receive a match fee of £22,000.

Despite requiring two teams to make a contest, their Fijian counterparts will receive £400 each for their afternoon’s work. It is not as if the Fijian XV will be fully representative of the strength of Fijian rugby either.

Already many of their players have been lured into the arms of other countries whilst a staggering 165 Fijians will be playing in France this weekend, some having reluctantly turned their back on representing their country.

So whilst introducing new members to the rugby family is admirable, there are many current members who already need to see some brotherly love from within the sport.

If Big Bill can deliver this, then he might just have won his biggest rugby battle.