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Rugby soon to end it's Olympic exile Posted over 4 years ago

The start of the Olympic Games is a few days away, along with a promised beginning to the British summer. Such has been the incessant wind and rain that the elements have muted calls for rugby in Europe to be played in parallel with the southern hemisphere calendar.

The difference between winter and summer rugby, in Britain rather than France or Italy, is that the rain becomes warmer after April. Competitors in the Olympics have been promised some sun next week, even if experience would suggest that to be a triumph of hope over expectation.

Rugby union will not feature in the Olympic Games, but the sport will end its long exile in 2016 after a long battle by the International Rugby Board to gain admission, first by the late Vernon Pugh and then by one of his successors as chairman, Bernard Lapasset.

Pugh was the IRB chairman when rugby union went open in August 1995, on the eve of a new season in Europe. He knew it was a rush with the game in the northern hemisphere lacking the sort of deal agreed by the major southern hemisphere unions with Rupert Murdoch and so lacking the means to pay players any more than the average wage, but the advent of professionalism had pre-dated the official announcement.

Pugh, a Welsh barrister with a sharp intellect, immediately started campaigning for rugby union to become an Olympic sport. His reasoning was that unless the sport achieved that status, World Cups would serve up not just gross mismatches but would become dangerous for amateur countries to compete in.

Knowing it would be a long campaign, Pugh proposed imposing a gate-taking levy on the major unions. The IRB would receive five per cent of their ticket sales to distribute among developing unions, helping them develop facilities as well as players, coaches and referees.

The Board effectively receives its income every four years when a World Cup is staged, one of the reasons why commercial restrictions on competing unions during a tournament are so tight, and it can never been enough. Pugh’s levy proposal was rejected and he died before securing Olympic status.

Lapasset succeeded and rugby union’s entry into the Olympics means unions like Russia, the United States, China and Brazil, the hosts of the 2016 Games, have access to government money. The Russians found themselves training in what their coach Kingsley Jones described as world-class facilities in the build-up to last year’s World Cup, a consequence of admission into the Olympics.

Developing unions will receive money and assistance the IRB would never have been able to afford or provide. As the dispute last year over the distribution of income generated by a World Cup showed, the financial advantage enjoyed by the leading unions in the north over their Sanzar rivals had been threatening the viability of the game in the south: a recent report into rugby union’s finances showed how serious the position was for New Zealand and Australia in particular.

That argument illustrated how the funding of emerging nations was not a question that taxed the elite, one reason why rugby union cannot rightly call itself a global game. The IRB has more than 100 members, but it has for most of its history effectively been run by the four home unions.

Lapasset’s re-election as chairman started to change that dynamic, one reason why the appointment of a chief executive of the IRB has proved so contentious: the old gang favoured an Irish candidate but the influence of the home unions is waning: they no longer have a chairman of a major committee.

Lapasset, whose victory over Bill Beaumont for the chairmanship was as narrow as his constituent base was wide, has ensured that the smaller unions have a say in how the game is run. That, together with Olympic status, may tell in the coming years, not by the time of the next World Cup or 2019 but a few generations down the line.

It needs to. Only four countries have won the World Cup out of five who have contested the seven finals. The four semi-finalists in New Zealand last year were the same four who had made the last four in the inaugural tournament in 1987.

Samoa were among the nations last year who felt they were nothing more than wallpaper in the World Cup, there to add colour and know their place. They were not totally delusional, even if there was a failure to distinguish between those on the IRB who made policies and those who implemented them, and the way referees are appointed for Test matches has since been shaken up.

Meaningful change will take time. It may be that countries where rugby union is gaining a toehold, such as Brazil, only take to Sevens, a short form of the game that has not taken off like limited overs in cricket, but greater democracy will be needed as well as more funding before the landscape is altered.

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Paul Rees was born in Cardiff and has been a full-time writer on rugby union since 1986, first for the South Wales Echo, then Wales and Sunday and, from 2001, the Guardian and the Observer, having contributed to the former on a freelance basis since 1988. He has covered every World Cup since 1991 and five Lions tours. When time allows, he also write on cricket, mainly Glamorgan. And away from work, he a season-ticket holder at Arsenal, watching them home and away, including the European Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris in 2006.

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