Is rugby ready for the Olympics?


By Michael Herborn
Rugby sevens looks set to get the rubber stamp from the IOC to appear at the 2016 Summer Olympics. But while many rugby supporters are enthusiastic about the decision, structural problems within the the International Rugby Board still must be addressed by the IOC argues ex-Fijian Rugby official Charlie Charters.

The International Rugby Board (IRB), which governs the Rugby Union code of the game that includes rugby sevens, is based around a three-tiered member system. The IRB Council, the code's internal governing body, distributes 26 seats amongst member institutions as follows:

A) 16 seats to the eight Foundation Unions – two votes each to England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand
B) One seat each to Italy, Argentina, Canada and Japan
C) And one seat to each of the six regional confederations

A non-voting seat each on the Council is also given to the president and vice-president of the IRB.

This means that some of Rugby's developing nations, such as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, have just a share of a vote by extension of their regional confederations. It also means that developing nations within the IRB have an inbuilt minority of ten seats to sixteen.

Charlie Charters, who worked with the Fiji Rugby Union from 2001 – 2004 as its marketing manager, would like to see a change in this set-up, especially given the progress of pacific island nations in the Rugby Sevens form of the game.

The unrepresentative nature of the system has been documented in independent research argues Charters, who cites an independent study, co-authored by top UK legal firm Addleshaw Goddard, carried out in 2008.

“[The study] found seven per cent of IRB's member unions controlled 62 per cent of voting power. Put another way, 90 per cent of the unions (think, developing world) had less than a quarter of the votes,” says Charters.

On an athlete's level, the current representation at international level is also unrepresentative, believes Charters. Participation rates in domestic competition in Fiji is healthier than in some of the Foundation Members. For economic reasons, many Fijians, as well as other Pacific Island nations, also play in the domestic competitions of Foundation Members, particularly New Zealand, Australia and Japan.

Economically speaking, the Foundation Unions owe a debt of gratitude to the developing nations, due to the impact of the developing nations' participation in the game.

“The Rugby World Cup is only this profitable because of the teams competing from outside the Foundation Unions,” says Charters. “A tournament with only Foundation Unions would consist of 16 games, producing a fraction of the revenue to put against largely the same per-team costs. It's only when you add the 12 teams with no IRB vote (or one) that the tournament grows to 48 matches and, at an average of 47,000-plus paying spectators per game, generates the vast profits seen in France.”

Developing rugby nations' omission from the governing structures will be detrimental to the future of the game believes Charters, and mean that key issues of importance to these nations may not be addressed. These issues include rules on eligibility, on the release of club players for national duties and the creation of clear, transparent and binding system to manage player transfers and the fees due to the unions that developed them.

So while Charters is happy to see Rugby Sevens will be making its debut as an Olympic event in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, he hopes that the game's recognition at Olympic level will mean renewed focus on the governance of the game and a more active role by the IOC.

“The IOC should send a clear message to the IRB Council. Play fair with your governance,” says Charters. “Loosen your grip, open things up, and once you've created a level playing field, then come and join the Olympic movement.”


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