Exclusive: Interview with International Rugby Board chairman Bernard Lapasset
by Colin Spiro 19 November 2008
Lapasset: "I am a rugby
Part III: More than just a game
“In the finals of the last two world cups in 2003 and 2007 there has been just one try and people have played for just not losing the game; we don’t play to win the game with motion and creativity. We need that.”
In the third and concluding part of our exclusive interview with Bernard Lapasset we found out what makes the IRB chairman tick, how best to integrate Argentina, why the ELVs are proving so contentious and where he sees the future of his beloved game going.
Being chairman of an international sporting body is an onerous task, especially in terms of the amount of time spent travelling, meeting and greeting. There are endless functions to attend, dignitaries to speak to and issues to address, especially when trying to drive an expansionist vision through what some perceive as an archaic organisation.
The onset of open professionalism, the growth in popularity of the Rugby World Cup and the push for Olympic inclusion all mean that Lapasset has a full and diverse diary which takes him constantly around the globe.
“I have no more house, no more family, no more team, no more language. My language is different now, it’s totally changed,” he laments jokingly when reflecting on his hectic schedule.
“But I am a rugby man first. I like rugby. I like the atmosphere of rugby and I am sure that rugby is a good game for the future. I am sure of that,” he adds with conviction.
Lapasset was once quoted as saying, “We have the capacity to exist in the world through rugby”, and I asked him if he still thought this held true.
“Yes, that’s correct. I definitely think that. Look at my diary…Acapulco, Rome, Russia, Dhaka… every week I am travelling around the world, but we need that.
“I remember when I started discussions with the IOC about rugby and they said rugby was just for English guys. But no more. Rugby is different. It is no more like that. Rugby is open to a lot of new countries in the world, speaking English, Spanish, French, Japanese, and Chinese.
“Kazakhstan is a strong Union in rugby and the Brazilian women won the qualification in Dubai, beating Argentina in the final. So, for the first time, the Brazilian women could be in Dubai to play rugby sevens in the World Cup. That’s terrific news and I need to speak about that.
“Unfortunately I don’t speak very well in English but I speak good Spanish - my second language is Spanish because we are very near Spain and in this area [the Haute Pyrenees] we speak a special language, a Patois called Occitan which is very close to Spanish – and when I speak with the Olympic movement I speak Spanish.
“A lot of time I speak Spanish and it is important to promote this image. My job is not to work in Dublin – we have a lot of people to do that – my job is to promote rugby with the vision we have in other parts of the world. To show that rugby is no longer any more just for the gentlemen with a cup of tea. That’s the image that we had before and we need to change that and to promote rugby throughout the world.”
With that he offered up a refreshing drink, and after pondering a request for tea I thought better of it and opted instead for coffee. Changing world and all that.
So, could America be on the horizons of the IRB?
“I don’t think so. America is very different. The concept of sport in America is very different to elsewhere in the world – it is totally closed. They only have four sports: baseball, ice hockey, basketball and American football. Canada is in a better position, that is a definite possibility, yes, and so is Russia and the Ukraine,” he adds.
More immediately he said the IRB was concerned with integrating Argentina more fully into the top level of international rugby – hence their inclusion (together with Canada) in the current Autumn internationals being played throughout Europe.
But Lapasset said there was more to integration that just inclusion in tours and tournaments.
“The first thing we demanded was for Argentina to become a more professional side and to be sure that they have the capacity to promote the game properly. They already play a good game and have good players,” he said.
The president of the Argentinean Rugby Union (UAR) Porfirio Carreras recently admitted that a complete overhaul of their domestic rugby would be necessary before inclusion in the Tri-Nations tournament, their ultimate goal.
“We need to change our structure, divide our rugby into amateur and professional and try to produce elite players through the high performance centres,” said Carreras.
This is a move the IRB have been pushing for, the first step in moving up the international ladder for last year’s RWC semi-finalists.
“We have now included Argentina in the top 10 Unions, but the second part is to promote Argentina in the top tours and competitions in the world,” confirmed Lapasset. That’s why Argentina were included in the November tours of Europe and we have also opened discussions with the South [hemisphere] because the place for Argentina is in the south not in Europe.
“The tri-nations has only three nations. They can change that to open a new market to include Argentina. So need to open discussions to find out how best to integrate Argentina and what process is possible to do that. Also how long it would take to do that.
“The link is between South Africa and Argentina. They have some solutions, some projects together, but it is more difficult with Australia and New Zealand and there is a long way to go,” he added.
Why the reticence?
“I don’t know exactly, but I know that Australia and New Zealand hope to open relations with Japan and Russia and parts of Asia. The Bledisloe Cup match was held in Hong Kong and they need more money to create some events in other parts of the world.”
So it’s a slowly, slowly process then?
“Yes,” replied Lapasset. “This is officially the first step, and we are also creating an inter-hemisphere tournament. This is already underway with money in place.”
Another changing aspect of rugby union is that northern hemisphere money is now drawing the top rugby league stars to convert, particularly in France where the lack of salary caps is a huge incentive for players. The relationship between the two codes has traditionally been frosty at best, so I wondered if this was now thawing in the modern rugby world.
“Yes, we have a lot of players switching – from Australia in particular – but it is a different sport and they can both co-exist. I remember when Sonny ‘Bill’ Williams came to France I received a lot of letters from Australia saying ‘what are we doing?’ But we have no exclusions.
“I remember 10-20 years ago we didn’t speak with rugby league but this time has finished. It is a different game, a different concept with a different strategy, so we have no more stories between 15 and 13. My predecessor was totally against rugby league but this time is finished,” said Lapasset.
More pressing, in the meantime, is the current dalliance with the ELVs which has provoked a wave of criticism in both north and south hemispheres. So, how does the IRB view the feedback so far?
“We defined the problem, the programme is in place and we take the solution next year in March. Only then do we decide what we are doing,” he explained.
Lapasset: "We don't play to win
“We have two issues in this programme: Firstly, in the south they say rugby needs more space, speed, clarity and vision of the ball for spectators and TV, and that we need to open the game. Secondly, in the north, they said ‘no, rugby is fine, we need to continue with the path of the game to fight each other’ and that technical is more important than speed. We need to be more technical, and speed is not part of the technique.
“There are two different cultures, two different visions of the game, and when we speak about the rules of rugby every union thinks ‘I am the best, I have the best vision for rugby’ – it’s crazy,” he laments.
“The decision could be very difficult and we probably have some big issues coming. I see that South Africa is taking a different decision for the British and Irish Lions tour, and it’s not the same vision as Australia and New Zealand at this time.
“But I think we will start in the north and play with the new rules and after that I’m sure evolution will be possible. At the end of the day we need to be in the middle of what we are doing and the end could be the final solution, but it’s too early to say. But it’s important that we decide that we need more creativity in games. In the finals of the last two world cups in 2003 and 2007 there has been just one and people have played for just not losing the game; we don’t play to win the game with motion and creativity. We need that.”
So, the much-maligned ELVs are here to stay then, with the IRB initiative being driven by an acknowledgement that defence had overridden attack in the modern game.
“Yes. We talked to the coaches and they said they played entertaining rugby at the start of the tournament [the last world cup] but after that they became careful and looked at the best process to make minimal risk and win at the end of the day. Well, that’s not for rugby, we need to be more creative and have the capacity for each player to improve.
“I think it’s a good process to do that and to explain that to the coaches. To say rugby is changing and we need more space and capacity for players. At the end we shall see how the best road is to do that. A lot of coaches say we have more space – but this is good for the kickers and we can’t let that happen all the time, it’s not rugby it’s ping-pong. That is a part of the decision that we have taken. More space is good, but not just to kick the ball and run behind, no. Rugby is good to run with the ball and create more passes.”
It is an honest opinion from a man devoted to ensuring the safe development of a sport he loves. For Lapasset rugby is more than a mere sport, it is a moral code for behaviour and team togetherness. It seems that under his stewardship that message is now reaching more potential converts than ever before, leaving the sport as a whole better placed to compete in an ever shrinking world.
Bernard Lapasset Interview Part I: My Olympic Dream
Bernard Lapasset Interview Part 2: My Hopes and Fears For The Game