Exclusive: Interview with
International Rugby Board chairman Bernard Lapasset
by Colin Spiro 29 October 2008
Cash fears: Bernard Lapasset
Part II: My hopes and fears
for the game
"The selector is the
agent. The agent is monitoring the game in the world and
that is crazy. We need to change that.”
In the second instalment of our exclusive three-part
interview with Bernard Lapasset the IRB chairman talks about
the Rugby World Cup, spreading the game globally and his
concerns about European money unbalancing the sport. (Bernard
Lapasset Interview Part I: My Olympic Dream)
Rugby union’s profile has never been higher. Players’
earning powers are continuing to soar, as is the income from
sponsors and television, but not everything about rugby’s
current status is pleasing the IRB chairman, and he is
particularly concerned about the financial strength of
British and French clubs.
“The problem of money is
difficult because the maximum money is concentrated in
Europe. There are a lot of players coming from the southern
hemisphere – from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand –
and we must be careful because we could destroy the value of
players in Europe.
“A lot of people say ‘Oh,
Bernard, but the money is in the north’, but the money is
not the true value of the game. The value of the game is
having players coming through and to promote good players
into the national side. We have the money but we don’t have
a good system for developing good players in rugby in the
The emerging north-south
divide is something that concerns Lapasset greatly, and one
he says needs urgent addressing.
“We are not the same
calendar in the north and the south, so we could destroy
totally the competition in the south. We must think all the
time how we are going to promote the game because we are not
the best against the bet at the moment,” he warned.
The continuing exodus of
southern hemisphere players to Europe – particularly from
New Zealand – is clearly worrying him. It may be great for
the clubs but the long-term health of the international game
could be at risk if Europe hoards all the best players
thanks to the strength of euro and the wealthy club owners.
“The selector is no more
the Union, the selector is the agent. The agent is
monitoring the game in the world and that is crazy. We need
to change that,” he warned.
“My concern is to change
the format we have at this time – we need to explain that we
need to change this. We need a common concept throughout the
world, not just in one area because we have the money. No.
Money in Europe will destroy the game in the south, that is
the short vision we have.”
To that end the IRB is
taking positive action and recently announced a programme to
plough $100m into developing the game globally.
“That is very important, for rugby is not
just about the top 10 Unions, but all the Unions in the
world. It’s very important to open a new area for rugby – we
need regional organisations for refs, coaches, selectors,
players and junior teams. We need more tours and
international competitions. We need to make a direct link
with some unions.
“We’re working with
Romania, Georgia, Russia and India for promoting the game
over a long period. This is a new concept put in place two
years ago. In India we have a lot of English guys involved
but in some countries it’s different, in Mexico for example.
In India we have organised the Commonwealth Games with rugby
sevens and that’s a massive event. This time I have even
been invited, which is a big thing because I am French and
we are not even in the Commonwealth.
“We’ve had a rugby sevens
World Cup in Dubai, we have created a rugby junior world cup
in Kenya. These things are very important and we are using
sevens as a way to open the door to 15-a-side. Sevens is
more important for the young people. The Hong Kong sevens is
fantastic and we to create that in the Olympic movement too.
We need young people coming more and more into the sport,
and we need sevens to create a good atmosphere for that to
Some nations are further
down that development road than others – such as Japan – and
their inclusion in recent World Cups is helping that process
Having personally overseen
the successful 2007 World Cup in France Lapasset knows only
too well how hosting such an event can promote the game both
internally and externally.
According to a recent
report by accountants Deloitte nations wishing to host the
Rugby World Cup in 2015 or 2019 could boost their economies
by up to £2billion. That is a both a staggering prospect and
further confirmation. If any were needed, that rugby union
is now a major player in terms of global sports.
The last RWC, held in
France in 2007, was recognised as the third largest sporting
event in the world, after the Olympics and the football
World Cup, and Lapasset was the man charged with organising
The resounding success of
the tournament not only buoyed the host nation’s coffers, it
also helped spread the game’s appeal and further confirmed
the continuing development of international teams outside
the traditional heartland of rugby’s powerhouses. Who could
forget Argentina beating France to take third place? Or the
impact of the Pacific Island nations? Or even the sight of
American winger Takudzwa Ngwenya beating South African
winger Bryan Habana on the outside?
The attraction of hosting
such a tournament is obvious and the lobbying is hotting up
ahead of the IRB’s decisions for the 2015 and 2019 events.
But Lapasset knows first hand how much energy and time it
takes to organise a successful event and is keen to give
host countries the longest possible period of preparation.
Spreading the gospel: Lapasset at home
“I started my organisation
[of the 2007 RWC] in 1995, so that’s 12 years,” he stressed.
“You need time because it’s not just about the games, it’s
more than that so that you can get all of the country to
support the concept of the World Cup. We needed that, and it
wasn’t just a country either, it was a region. In France we
welcomed 350,000 people in four weeks from all over Europe.”
The IRB recently confirmed
it had received 10 bids for the 2015 and 2019 RWCs,
including a left field one from Jamaica.
“I don’t know why they
[Jamaica] do that but we’ve received a good proposal from
Japan, and Russia could be coming too. They have a good
programme and in 10 years from here they could be the place.
We need to do that – we need to open the vision for rugby,”
“My vision is to see the
pinnacle of rugby (15s) is the RWC and we need to extend the
format during a long period to be sure all the unions have
the capacity to improve themselves as an organisation. At
the same time we also need to do the same with the links
with the governments, media partners and the regions because
it is a massive event.
“When I won the right to
hold the 2007 RWC in France a lot of people said ‘Oh, France
are not so good at this’ but at the end of the day we beat
all the record in terms of attendances, television figures
and so on,” he says with obvious satisfaction.
Indeed, the 2007 RWC has
left a clear legacy in France with attendances and
participation both on the increase since throughout the
country since the event. Not everyone was initially happy
with the regional distribution of the games – especially in
Toulouse – but Lapasset said the dividends have proved the
decision was right.
“We opened the vision of
rugby. In Lens a lot of people came from Belgium, Poland,
Finland and Sweden because the TGV made it very easy. In
Marseille we had Italians, Australians and Romanians and in
the southwest we had Spanish and Portuguese.
“The RWC is an open vision
to include more and more people to get to know the game, to
know the atmosphere in the stadia and at the end of the
event we had no incidents, no smashed cars, no fights in the
bars, no fights in the street… nothing. Seven weeks for the
tournament and no case at the end. That was marvellous, and
that is rugby.”
Bernard Lapasset Interview Part I:
My Olympic Dream
Bernard Lapasset Interview Part 3:
More Than Just a Game