In review: World Rugby governance review findings

January 08, 2021

In June 2020, World Rugby launched an independent-led working group, chaired by British Olympic Association chairman Sir Hugh Robertson, with the objective of enhancing the fairness and effectiveness of World Rugby’s governance structures. On 7 January 2021, the working group released its interim recommendations, which are:

  • the establishment of an ethics and conduct charter for elected officials;
  • the introduction of a fit and proper persons test for members of members of World Rugby’s Council, its Committee (“EXCO”) and all standing committees under its jurisdiction;
  • the introduction of a robust conflict of interest management process which protects the integrity and effectiveness of decision-making;
  • a target of at least 40 per cent female representation on committees with the promotion of women leaders in the sport;
  • player representation throughout all the committee structures, including EXCO, to ensure player-centric decision-making;
  • a continued focus on diversity, skill set, independence, capability and geographical representation when forming committees; and
  • Council meetings to continue to occur twice a year – one meeting in person and one remote.

The working group will now turn its focus to the election and composition of EXCO and other committees, the definition and classification of unions, and further work on diversity and inclusion strategies.

At first blush, these recommendations provide for welcome updates to World Rugby’s governance structures. However, on further inspection, the lack of detail in the proposals means it is difficult to discern whether they amount to meaningful changes. For example, as an international federation under the auspices of the IOC, World Rugby has already undertaken to adopt a code of ethics based on the principles and rules of the IOC Code of Ethics. An announcement that World Rugby will establish a code of ethics therefore does not advance matters in any significant way: the devil will be in the detail of the obligations enshrined in the proposed code and how it will be enforced.

Similarly, whilst the adoption of a fit and proper persons test is an encouraging sign, the key to its effectiveness will be its scope and the consistency of its enforcement. The same is true of the proposed conflict of interest management process: without more detail, stakeholders and the public are left in the dark as to how the new process will differ from the current regulations.

The working group’s findings relating to diversity and player representation are, of course, a very positive development, and the recommendation of 40% female representation on committees is one of the few areas in which any specific details are published. Hopefully, the second phase of the working group’s review will be similarly ambitious (and similarly specific) in relation to other aspects of diversity and player representation.

Finally, it will not have escaped the notice of the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare organisation, authors of the highly critical Veilomani Report, that the governance review has so far remained silent on the thorny issue of Council voting rights, which are currently weighted heavily in favour of a handful of “Tier 1” nations. It would appear from World Rugby’s statement regarding phase two of the review that this issue will remain unaddressed.

Given that transparency is one of the cornerstones of good governance, World Rugby could be encouraged to publish more details of the working group’s recommendations and to give stakeholders an opportunity to provide further input. Further, whilst a “top down” refresh of World Rugby’s governance has been much-needed, it does little to address issues relating to player welfare such as Covid-19 and the highly-publicised concussion litigation in which World Rugby is a respondent.

Against a backdrop of what could be one of the most defining years in the progress and development of the professional game, the fairness and effectiveness of World Rugby’s governance structures could never be more critical and so we hope that World Rugby will manage to address these issues in a way which promotes, and indeed balances, commercial efficacy, player welfare, good governance, and the rugby values we hold so dear.