As the dust settles on another series of fiercely-fought inter-hemisphere clashes another intense battle continues, the one to preserve the integrity of the sport.
Match-fixing scandals have hit increasingly close to home in recent months with football, cricket and rugby league all tarnished by reports of alleged corruption. Until now, rugby union has escaped such ignominy but far from celebrating the fact, officials are stepping up their efforts to keep it that way.
“We don’t suggest rugby is at high risk of match-fixing but there is a risk there nonetheless because the market is growing as is the international interest in the gambling and it would be naive to think it would never come knocking on the door,” insists Darren Small, Director of Integrity at Sportradar, one of the key players in combating betting-related fraud who are in their second season of working with the Rugby Football Union and the Rugby Players’ Association.
As part of the three-year deal announced at the beginning of last season, Sportradar has scrutinised every Aviva Premiership, Greene King IPA Championship, LV= Cup, British & Irish Cup and autumn international for signs of betting-related corruption and fraudulent activity and while they have not discover anything untoward, the sport is constantly on guard.
“One of the key messages is that the corruptors move sports,” said Alys Lewis, RFU solicitor and the lead on their anti-corruption strategy, who is well aware of what is at stake. “We recognise that if the reputation of the sport is damaged whether that is corruption, doping or misbehaviour on or off the field, that damages everything,” she said. “There is a quote I once heard, that it is like an oil spill, it takes over everything and for a long time. And that is the thing that we have to have at the forefront of our mind when talking about anti-corruption. It is incumbent upon us to make sure the players, the match officials, the staff, everyone is aware of this for their own protection, not just to protect the sport and the commercial viability.”
It is a message that Lewis is determined to hammer home at every level of the game. “It is easy to think sometimes that it is just about protecting the elite element of the game but it’s not, it’s about the whole game, the whole sport from the community game all the way up,” she said. “It can affect everyone.”
The Rugby Players’ Association has done much of the ground work on this issue and has spearheaded the education programme that is seen as key to keeping the sport clean. “The whole betting integrity issue can’t just be a stick that people are beaten with if they fall foul of it – it must be education too,” insisted Richard Bryan, a key figure in the battle against corruption as Rugby Director at the RPA.
There is one area of the game that is of particular concern. “Sevens is one of our vulnerabilities and that is based on due diligence and also the fact it is played in some of the unregulated betting markets,” said Lewis. Her concern is shared by her partners in the fight against corruption. “Sevens is a more at risk environment given the ability for a single individual to have more of an impact on a game and also the areas of the globe it is played in,” explained Bryan.
His sentiments were echoed by Small. “Rugby Sevens is growing in popularity from a betting perspective,” he said. “If you look back even 18 months ago it wasn’t being offered for gambling very much, now there is live betting being offered. It is a faster game and lends itself to betting very well.”
Bryan has never been made aware of people being paid to influence outcomes whether that is players, referees or anyone else involved but insists the sport must remain vigilant. “The sport can’t just sit back and think that nothing has happened in rugby and so we’re ok,” he said. “But as betting markets evolve and become more complicated there is always the risk that corruption could take place.”
Is it just a matter of time before rugby union hits the headlines for the wrong reasons? “I’d like to think we will never see anything but as things get more sophisticated it is possible that we will get some reports to investigate,” said Lewis. “Whether there is an offence sitting behind them that will be down to intelligence and the investigation, which is why having someone like Sportradar from an intelligence perspective is really important."
“Having that level playing field and the audience believing what they are watching is real is a vital thing to protect as once it is gone it must be very difficult to get back.”