World Rugby is to undergo the most radical overhaul of its governance in the professional era – including a commitment to increasing female representation on its committees to at least 40 per cent.
The governing body came under fire from prominent figures in women’s sport last May for appointing only one female to their 12-strong executive committee for the second successive term.
It led to criticism on social media, with Alison Donnelly, the founder of the women’s rugby online community Scrumqueens, pointing out there were “more Bretts than women” on the committee, which included outgoing chief executive Brett Gosper and Brett Robinson of Rugby Australia.
Female representation on World Rugby’s global council has increased significantly since 2017, with women now accounting for 17 of its 50 members.
However that figure is now set to rise significantly across all the governing body’s committees after unanimous backing was given to an interim set of governance reforms which also includes the introduction of a ‘fit and proper person’ test.
The wide-ranging review of the organisation has been led by Sir Hugh Robertson, the British Olympic Committee chairman and former UK Olympics and Sports Minister.
The recommendations include the “establishment of a robust ethics and conduct charter for elected officials” as well as a fit and proper person’s test for council, EXCO and all standing committees.
The reform is designed to prevent a repeat of the appointment of Francis Kean as chairman of the Fiji Rugby Union despite a conviction for manslaughter in 2007. Kean was stood down and his bid to stand for World Rugby’s executive committee withdrawn in April following amid accusations of homophobia and discrimination.
The overhaul also recommends greater player representation on all the committee structures and a “continued focus on diversity, skill set, independence, capability and geographical representation.”
Another key recommendation will see the introduction of a “robust conflict of interest management process” to protect the integrity and effectiveness of decision-making.
The initial findings were endorsed after all unions, regions and the International Rugby Players (IRP) were invited to make submissions to the review panel.
The working group has also identified four other areas of further focus which will look at the controversial classification of national unions as either ‘tier one’ or ‘tier two’ which could lead redistribution of funding and voting rights.
Currently only nations playing in the Six Nations or the Rugby Championship are regarded as ‘tier one’ and each union receives three votes on the World Rugby council.
Robertson’s working group, which comprises independent experts, union and regional representatives and player representatives from emerging and established rugby nations, are to provide the World Rugby council with a further update in May.
“We are undertaking this important and necessary process with the ambition of implementing and living the best-possible standards of good governance, furthering the effectiveness and diversity of our structures, ensuring they reflect the values and universality of the game,” said Sir Bill Beaumont, World Rugby chairman.
“Our performance is best measured by actions, not just words. We are heading in a very encouraging direction – that enables us to best achieve our purpose of growing the sport worldwide by making it more relevant and accessible.
“All of the governance practices, processes and procedures we implement must be implemented meaningfully with that purpose in mind. This is and will continue to be an independent-led process and I would like to thank the unions, regions and International Rugby Players for their feedback and submissions.”
Robertson added: "I am delighted that the World Rugby Council have given their full endorsement to the interim package of recommendations made by a very engaged and progressive working group.
“These actions will strengthen diversity and inclusion and, for the first time, introduce an independent ethics structure. These were all proposals which received widespread support across the global game.”
“We are at half time. In the second half, we will consider the structure of the Executive Committee and the definition and classification of a diverse and growing family of national member unions. I look to continuing this positive momentum with the working group and reporting back to the Council in due course.”