2003 was yet another momentous year for rugby, with some spellbinding performances on the pitch, accompanied by continuing evidence of success and growth on many other fronts. Even before Rugby World Cup 2003, television audiences in a number of key territories, after several years in the doldrums, began once again to move ahead. Attendances at matches showed similar tendencies. Television revenues began to recover. And sponsors showed renewed interest. RWC 2003 raised the image and the profile of the game to new heights.
Ironically, however, these positive developments were also accompanied by concerns about the sometimes faltering progress within the game towards greater and more meaningful global competition. And uncertainties emerged about the financial prospects for a number of our key unions.
Some would argue that there is an apparent contradiction between growing success and emerging problems. I disagree. These are the ‘growing pains’ which one would expect in any successful and emerging sport. It is, after all, not yet ten years since the game went open, and the full impact of the professional era has yet to be felt.
It was inevitable that the decision to embrace professionalism would disturb the equilibrium within the sport. In a purely amateur game, teams from small and comparatively poor countries could still compete on reasonably even terms with teams from the larger, industrialised nations. But, in a professional environment, national teams which enjoy the base of a large industrialised marketplace enjoy advantages which are far beyond the reach of the smaller nations.
Success walks hand in hand with new problems and with new challenges. In many ways, these are simply opposite sides of the same coin. We should not be discouraged from the path upon which we have chosen to tread merely because it has become steep and rocky in places. We need to adapt, and we need to work even harder to achieve our goals. This will be easier said than done, and we will need the co-operation of unions, players, clubs and fans alike in order to realise the sport¹s full potential. Rugby¹s long and otherwise illustrious history has often been a stranger to the kind of co-operation which must now become commonplace.
Let me draw your attention to the highs, and also to the rather less glorious moments, of Rugby World Cup 2003. Widely recognised as the most successful Rugby World Cup ever staged, it was a model of faultless organisation. Our thanks and admiration go out to the directors of RWC, the staff of the IRB, our commercial partners and agents and, of course, to our hosts – the Australian Rugby Union. Great rugby throughout the Tournament culminated in a nail-biting finale, watched by a record global television audience. All concerned deserve a mighty pat on the back.
Rugby Word Cup 2003 was unquestionably a triumph, but it also served to expose a number of potential fault lines within the game fault lines which we cannot afford to ignore. These might perhaps be best grouped together under the general heading of ‘the gap between the haves and have-nots’.
I was left with a private sense of satisfaction following the conclusion of that great Final. But I was also left with a number of underlying concerns, each of which I believe has to be addressed before we embark upon the final stages of RWC 2007.
The first is the need to ensure that every nation has unrestricted access to all of its players. Whilst in theory achievable through regulation, this is unlikely to be realised without the wholehearted support and co-operation of those who pay the players’ wages. We ignore the realities of the marketplace at our peril. Rugby is, after all, a global game, popular in countries of markedly different economies. The wages earned by an overseas player in one country could well represent the entire income for many, many family members back home. Trading bread for the table against pride in one’s country is a choice we should force no-one to make. There has to be a better way.
The second is the need to ensure that every nation which participates in the Finals has access to adequate funds to be able – as far as is possible – to compete on equal terms. This will involve greater focus in our development programmes, additional opportunities for competition, and a renewed emphasis on equity in the distribution of the proceeds of Rugby World Cup itself. But money is, in itself, simply not enough. Of course we have to continue to apply funds to assist in the development of rugby. But, at the same time, we need to devise and to implement innovative structures in order to stimulate and sustain competition at the highest level. Only through strengthening competition will we bring the best out of many nations as individual countries. Only then will we guarantee that the game will continue to expand and to progress.
Equally, we should never forget the needs of some of our established unions. These are the teams who in so many ways add the lion’s share of value to the Tournament yet, currently, their costs of attendance are not fully reimbursed. This is being addressed .
The resolution of these and other issues will, without doubt, be problematic and controversial. Resolve them, however, we must. And, irrespective of the decisions that are made, there will be criticism. The IRB is a favourite target of many people and, over the years, we have had to develop thick skins. But we are increasingly mindful of the need for greater accountability and greater efficiency in the way in which decisions are arrived at. We need, at all times, to be a model of transparency, accountability and good governance.
That is why, prior to the commencement of RWC 2003, the IRB initiated a root and branch review of the way in which we are governed. Chaired by Bob Tuckey, the ARU Chairman , this governance review is nearing completion, and I am hopeful that it will soon bear fruit. Changes will undoubtedly flow from it, to which I look forward. In my view, these should begin with a universal, collective acceptance that the IRB is about ‘we’ and ‘us’, rather than ‘them’. After all, the IRB represents the world-wide interests of this great sport – of our great sport. Every union should feel not only able but obliged to play its part, through the agreed representative structures, in the development of our policies.
In a changing world, perhaps the only thing which is certain is that the IRB cannot afford to stand still. Change we must, and change we will.
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