Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rebranding and Rugby's Future

International Rugby Board (IRB) Re-brands itself as World Rugby but will it actually do what it says on the tin? asks @BigJoeShep...


This week sees the IRB World Rugby Conference and Exhibition (ConfEx) 2014 in front of record numbers in London. At the conclusion of this event, the IRB will re-brand itself as World Rugby. In his opening address, IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset said: “Over the next couple of days, we will celebrate Rugby’s unique qualities, explore the factors driving the development of the Game, learn from other sports, discuss how we can enhance performance and look at how we can maximise the enormous opportunities that lie ahead in Rugby World Cup 2015 and Rugby Sevens at the Olympic Games 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.”

What bothers me is whether simply re-branding itself is enough? With the game on the cusp of a potential explosive growth across the globe with some 6.6 million now involved in the sport, are the IRB / World Rugby focusing enough on the development of Tier 2 and Tier 3 countries together with the standardisation of the game across the globe (Includes, rules, sponsorship, control of national unions, dictatorial TV controls, and much more) so there will be a singular model for emerging countries to follow and indeed creating an equal environment so these countries will have a realistic opportunity of one day reaching the top of the world rankings? 

OR………..are they happy to move forward whilst the leading 8 Nations (Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, France, New Zealand, Australia & South Africa) who are also known as the “Foundation Unions” set their own agendas, rules and requirements??

IRB / World Rugby:

The International Rugby Board (IRB) was founded in 1886 as the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB) by Scotland, Wales & Ireland who (as usual) had fallen out with England who didn’t join until 1890. With its headquarters in Dublin, the IRB is the world governing and law-making body for the game of Rugby Union. The IRB has several main functions including:
  • Governance of the Laws and Regulations and their enforcement
  • Tournament owners and managers
  • Global game development through Member Unions funding via grants and Strategic Investment programmes, and delivery of Education & Development programmes
  • Game promotion


The IRB Council meets twice a year. It consists of the eight foundations Unions each with two seats - Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and France. Argentina, Canada, Italy and Japan each have one seat on the Council as do all the 6 Regional Associations (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America & Oceania)

(@BigJoeShep Comment: Is it right or fair in the modern game that the 8 “Foundation Unions” have 2 votes each whilst others have only 1 and some none at all?)

Bands & Tiers:

The unions of the IRB are classified into four bands reflecting the level of development and the development strategy of the IRB: 

"High Performance" is composed of 18 unions: the participants of the 6 Nations (Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Italy & France), The Rugby Championship (New Zealand, South Africa, Australia & Argentina), the Pacific Nations Cup (Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga & United Stated) and finally Georgia and Romania.

“Performance" is composed of 5 Unions, Namibia, Portugal, Russia, Spain & Uruguay.

"Targeted" are China, Germany, India & Mexico.

"Development" includes all remaining Unions.

In addition to bands, unions are often referred to using the older tier system: 

"Tier 1" consists of the participants in the Six Nations Championship and The Rugby Championship
"Tier 2" consists of the remaining High Performance unions.
"Tier 3" All remaining Unions. 


(@BigJoeShep Comment: These are not an exhaustive list of issues but those I have heard / read / noticed over the last year or so and that have “Irked” me somewhat. There will be others. This is to get you to think about where our beloved game is actually going?)

1. National Unions and Rugby as a business: If we look at merely the key nations in Europe, we have national unions plus in some countries, the professional “businesses” that run their leagues. The top “9” effectively running the professional game in Europe through the newly formed European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) are; England - Rugby Football Union (RFU) and their top league, Premiership Rugby (PR), France - Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR) and Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) who run Top 14 & D2 Pro, Ireland - Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), Italy - Federazione Italiana Rugby (FIR), Scotland - Scottish Rugby Union (SRU),Wales - Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and Regional Rugby Wales (RRW) who support the 4 Welsh Regions in matters of rugby.

Why do we have to have “Other” organisations involved in running rugby at the highest level in England, France & Wales? I accept that the modern game being professional means that they have to run it as a business, but why can’t this be done by the National Unions? It DOES cause issues! It becomes about money first and foremost, then politics then eventually the game.

There is NO standardisation across the 6 Nations Club/Region/Provincial sides. The salary cap issue has become a joke. England are putting their salary cap levels up for the 2105/16 season AND allowing a second “Marquee” player to come in. They are doing this in an attempt to keep more home grown English talent in the Premiership. It has allegedly been driven by the fact that in countries like France and Japan, wages are rocketing and the clubs in these countries can take all the best talent away from the national game? I can’t actually find what if any rules regarding payment to players is? What measures are the IRB / World Rugby doing to set standardisation across the globe? Should they be?

The game is controlled effectively by the Chairmen and CEOs of these so I would question exactly how much power, influence and say do the National Unions of these countries. Let alone IRB / World Rugby have or has it been relinquished it to those with true power…………money?

2. International Eligibility:  There are three ways a player qualifies to represent a country: through his or her birth, that of parents or grandparents, or residency which requires someone to live in their adopted nation for three successive years. The cases of Steve Shingler for Scotland and James Loxton & Matthew Jarvis for Ireland back in 2012 for show that the one nation rule needs clarifying and it still hasn’t changed even today. These 3 had all played for Wales Under 20 and whilst cleared to play by the IRB for their “Chosen” full level countries, were not allowed as Wales cried foul. The problem is that Wales do not have an “A” side so their Under 20s effectively become that. Their argument is that under IRB rules, that team is effectively the next level down from the full national side. Ergo, they were country bound to Wales! Oh an as an aside, the Welsh did try to get one “A” team match against England a year or so back but they couldn’t agree payment terms with the players so it didn’t go ahead. An issue of the Welsh being in disarray, players being disadvantaged and money controlling the game of rugby………Never eh??

There is no standardisation once again and I question what the IRB / World Rugby are doing? Oh another point is, should we be allowing players from another nationality to play for their “adopted” country? Will we get to the point where a national team has less true born players owing to “blow ins” who have moved to that country for money or whatever?

The final piece on this issue is National Unions not allowing overseas players to represent them? England, New Zealand both do this and I’ve no doubt there’s others as well. Is it right? Are they harming their own development or should it be left up to them? Should IRB / World Rugby intervene? What would happen if a player took a National Union to court for stopping their right to play? Should a player accept that if they take the “big bucks” abroad, they forfeit their right? It was reported that previously French clubs had been accused of paying players not to represent their countries, especially at World Cup times.

European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR): Ah bless them, the EPCR, the organisation charged with running the successor to the Heineken & Amlin Cups because European Club Rugby (ECR) who ran them weren’t fit for purpose? In their haste to get the new competition rolled out, they had to utilise the ECR staff in Dublin initially! I could go on about why there were issues over sponsorship, dates for Round 3 games and beyond taking so long to get out, match kit for refs etc etc but you know all that.

Whilst they have sorted a European version of Tier 1 (Champions Cup) and Tier 2 (Challenge Cup), there’s no place (yet) for the previously believed Tier 3 competition. Does this tie in with the IRB / World Rugby strategy for development? No I don’t believe it does and has been caused by quickness to get something, “anything” in place and the rest will catch itself up. Perhaps, but not right. The point is, it’s not only unprofessional, it was driven by those who were more interested in money and again what impact does or should the IRB / World Rugby and it’s European “Region” representatives have? Should the European IRB / World Rugby “Region” act in the same manner as football. FIFA are the world football governing body and EUFA the European “Region”. The sole focus for competitions, regulation, mediation, pay, implementation of all those business critical areas. 

(@BigJoeShep Comment: Yes I know the English Football Premiership runs itself to degrees, however I don’t think it’s right and those clubs with chairmen / woman who are uber cash rich have created a 2 tier system where some clubs will never reach! Do we really want rugby becoming the same?)   

National Leagues & Developing their own systems:  The Ligue Nationale De Rugby in France introduced a number of rule changes in the Top 14 and Pro D2 again including different rules and regulations regarding the salary cap system, additional payments to clubs for home grown talent or those that represent their national team, any player who accumulates three yellow cards in the regular season will serve an automatic one-match ban and most notably they have changed the losing bonus point from 7 to 5 whilst the Pro 12 and English Premiership remains at 7? Now is this a sanctioned rule change approved for trial by the IRB / World Rugby? I can’t find it anywhere. One may ask what power, authority or direction the European “Region” has on rugby within the European confines?

Oh and the final comment from a piece on this subject by stated that, “It is believed that the constant sniping of Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal may be the inspiration behind this increased focus on protecting …………. the Top 14 and Pro D2.” 

Really? A chairman with billions of euros who has on occasions fallen foul for his views and is paying exorbitant amounts to bring in players at any cost to win control the game of rugby………Never eh?

(@BigJoeShep Comment: Toulon rugby club owner Mourad Boudjellal is apparently taking IRB to court as a battle over payments to players on test duties escalates following the completion of the Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship where he lost a number of players he pays for without compensation? He considers this an abuse by the national unions and a failure of the IRB / World Rugby to sort. Perhaps he may be right and genuinely has the interests of rugby and his club RC Toulon at heart attempting to bring it up to a modern day reality? Whatever your viewpoint, it’s just another issue that isn’t resolved by the people charged to do so?) 

The Other Side of the Coin:

In fairness to IRB / World Rugby, they have come a long way since they were formed. As at today, we have seen the game grow to 102 full members and 18 affiliate members across the globe. They have put in place the 4 levels highlighted above to develop the newer countries. 

To paraphrase IRB / World Rugby Chairman, Bernard Lapasset who highlighted the following at the opening of this year’s IRB Rugby ConfEx; 

“We have seen a hugely successful Woman’s Rugby World Cup, Junior World Cup, and Olympic 7s event that showcased the quality and excitement of the Women’s Game and has inspired future generations of players. Rugby World Cup 2015 in England is on track to be the biggest and the best Rugby World Cup to date. I am sure it will be an exceptional record-breaking celebration of Rugby that provides the platform to grow participation and audiences worldwide. Japan 2019 is progressing well and on track to deliver a strong IMPACT legacy for the development of Rugby in Asia, years before the event kicks off. Our road to Rio is now well under way; a glorious summer delivered a record Commonwealth Games Rugby Sevens competition and our return to the Olympic stage at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic” 

They IRB have funded millions in development in recent years to assist countries such as Georgia, Canada, USA, Japan, Romania, Fiji, Samoa & Tonga. They have assisted Argentina with additional funds so they can retain their Tier 1 status and much more. 

There is a greater emphasis on anti-doping and especially on the serious issue of concussion and other related medical areas to enhance knowledge, understanding and best practice.


Have I been unfair to the IRB as it today re-brands itself into World Rugby? I don’t believe so. I feel whilst they have come a long way, there are structures which either aren’t in place or if they are, they don’t appear to be working to create standardisation, equality and the correct model for the developing nations to both understand or adhere to. 

If these developing nations see Clubs, Regions, Provinces and Leagues do their own thing, setting their own rules and agendas, and all that within the confines of just a single National Union, what message is that sending out? 

It’s about having the correct systems and processes in place across the board and whilst rugby is now a business and requires money to fund it, without standardisation and the policing of regulations to create an equal playing field, the developing nations will never get to where they can one day aspire to reach.

@bigjoeshep is the Owner and Head of Information & Knowledge Management atDigital Knowledge Zone.   An avid Leinster & Ireland Rugby fan, he came to rugby at the late age of 24, was a tight head prop, had at least 2 good runs in every game and retired at only 36 after 3 operations on his legs and now forms the 4th "virtual" person in a front row each time his beloved teams are playing (much to the annoyance of his suffering girlfriend who has to put up with being "embraced" by the Big Fella at each scrum!!!)


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019