Thursday 22 August 2019

John Greene: World Rugby sets the gender balance standard Ireland must strive to match


World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont hailed it as
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont hailed it as "a major milestone in the progression and growth of World Rugby and the global game". Photo: Getty

John Greene

A week after controversially awarding France the Rugby World Cup in 2023, the latest World Rugby decision could also have a profound effect on the game in Ireland in the next few years.

World Rugby has cleared the way to allow for up to 17 new members of its ruling council - so long as those 17 members are women. This is a ground-breaking move by a sporting governing body. World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont hailed it as "a major milestone in the progression and growth of World Rugby and the global game".

He added: "The reform is historic, reflective of our ambitions and long overdue. If we are to promote and nurture the growth of women in rugby then change must be led from the top."

World Rugby's ruling council - the body which chose France ahead of South Africa and Ireland to host the World Cup in six years' time - now has 32 members, all bar one of whom are men. Asia Rugby reacted first to the change and Ada Milby, secretary general of the Philippine RFU, became the first woman appointed to the council last weekend.

In a statement on Thursday, World Rugby said: the "reform will give the 11 unions and six regional associations, who currently have an additional vote but no additional representative, the right to send an additional representative to Council subject to that person being female".

Ireland's two members on the council are Pa Whelan and John O'Driscoll and they currently cast three votes, not two. So, on foot of this ruling, there is now an additional seat immediately available to the IRFU - once it is offered to a woman.

World Rugby said its decision is the first step in its "wider strategy to accelerate women in rugby on and off the field of play and bring gender-balance to the highest levels of its governance".

If all members chose to take up the additional seats available for women, it will leave the council with 49 members, a third of whom will be women. Rugby will have gone from zero representation to one-third in one fell swoop.

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This is a significant development in the global administration of a major sport, and sends a very strong message, but it's also worth pointing out that while there should now be an influx of women into the top level of the game, they will be taking up existing votes rather than being afforded additional powers.

On the flip-side, however, women will now be sitting at the table when all the key decisions involving rugby worldwide are being taken. This will inevitably lead to unions and associations being forced to take a harder look at their attitude to female representation in their own ranks.

World Rugby says it is committed to providing equal opportunities in all areas of the game, on and off the pitch, and published its strategy up to 2025 for growing the involvement of women in the game. Interestingly, it includes a provision to work with its member unions and associations to "review gender inclusiveness in governance and management".

Further key ambitions of this plan are to grow the number of women's teams in both the 15s and sevens games and to look at ways of increasing the value of the women's game to commercial interests. Given the fact that the recent World Cup in Ireland was the best attended so far and set new records for broadcast and social media reach, World Rugby believes it is building from a solid platform. Approximately one quarter of the world's current rugby playing population is female and in the eight-year lifetime of this strategic plan the ambitious target is to double that number.

The new make-up of the World Rugby council will also put pressure on the IRFU to increase its female representation at national and provincial level. Currently, Mary Quinn is the first - and still only - woman to be elected to the IRFU national committee.

And in the context of the ongoing dispute in Irish rugby involving Railway Union, it is clear that the game here is in for a major culture change.

Railway Union is seeking to be recognised as a senior club by Leinster on the basis that its women's team plays in the top flight of the All-Ireland League. Senior clubs automatically receive a seat on the executive, but the relevant by-law (which states that "a senior club is a club participating in the AIL") has traditionally been interpreted to refer only to the men's competition.

"We've been challenging Leinster for the last two years to be recognised as a senior team and so be afforded a seat at executive level," says Railway Union president Shirley Corcoran, who admits to being enthused by the leadership which has now been shown by the world governing body. "It's been a very slow process to bring Leinster Rugby around to the view that a women's rugby team can be accepted as a senior team."

To a degree, World Rugby's decision shows just how far behind Leinster's thinking is on this issue. "Everyone else is moving forward," says Corcoran.

It is, as Corcoran points out, about being acknowledged. This of course includes corporate bodies that sponsor Irish rugby at various levels, and reflect in the glow of being involved in the game here given its success at provincial and international level. Given their own governance structures and the importance they like to place on equality, how will they feel if the rate of change in rugby does not accelerate?

Railway Union intend to bring a motion to the branch's annual general meeting in May to have the by-law amended to specify the men's and women's AIL. It will require a two-thirds majority to pass. The pity is that it has to come to that, when all that's required is what seems to be a simple change in interpretation. Seems to be . . .

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