Lapasset vote win could hit HK's 2019 hosting hopes
Political manoeuvring inside the International Rugby Board - and suspected back-room deals by its chairman Bernard Lapasset - have strained relationships between the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union and its Japanese counterpart - along with Hong Kong's hopes of hosting games of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
A bid by HKRFU chairman Trevor Gregory to become the Asian Rugby Football Union's representative on the IRB council was thwarted by Japan, which put forward its own nominee, Koji Tokumasu, the astute general manager of Rugby World Cup 2019, at the regional body's council meeting last month in Laos.
The acrimonious election has left a bitter aftertaste with fingers being pointed at the IRB, especially Lapasset, who is widely seen as the person responsible for bringing internecine politics into ARFU, which has always been a closely knit organisation.
Frenchman Lapasset is believed to harbour ambitions of one day having a seat on the International Olympic Committee. With rugby back in the Olympics - Rio in 2016 when sevens is a medal sport - the next step is for a senior IRB official to be part of the IOC executive. The case for that individual is strengthened considerably if he is head of the sport.
Lapasset, who has been IRB chairman since 2007, has decided to stand for another term, apparently breaking a gentleman's agreement with vice-chairman Bill Beaumont, who four years ago stepped aside to allow Lapasset to take up the hot seat.
In a recent interview with the British media, former England captain Beaumont said he had shaken hands with Lapasset and the understanding was the Frenchman would step down this year to make way for him. 'That was my understanding. There were no witnesses present except there were lots of people who I told this to immediately after that we had made the deal. My conscience is crystal clear,' says Beaumont, who will run against Lapasset in the IRB's first election for the top post in Las Vegas tomorrow.
The election was postponed from October in Auckland during the World Cup. On the morning of the election, there was a last-minute addition to the agenda: the delegates would vote on whether to have an election or postpone it to a later date.
An IRB insider, speaking to the Sunday Morning Post on condition of anonymity, said the regions and unions wanted more time to make up their minds. 'Some people wanted more time to consider the issues and manifestos of the two candidates and mandate their votes according to the wishes of the membership,' he said.
ARFU had told its IRB representative, Japan's Nobby Mashimo, to vote for Beaumont. Mashimo instead voted for the election to be postponed.
There are 26 votes on the IRB council - 16 belonging to the eight foundation members (including England, France, Australia and New Zealand who each have two votes each) and 10 from four permanent members (Argentina, Japan, Italy and Canada) plus the six regional associations of which ARFU is one. The vote was split 13-13 - with the ARFU vote helping turn the tables - leaving Lapasset to cast the deciding vote. He voted for a postponement.
'Not only did Nobby vote against ARFU's intentions, but he didn't even inform us there would be a vote to decide if the elections would go ahead,' said Gregory.
That was only the beginning. Last month in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, where the ARFU council met, Gregory put forward his name to be Asia's representative on the IRB council. Once again there was a gentlemen's agreement that Mashimo would hold the post from 2007 to 2011 before Gregory took over.
Instead, the Japan Rugby Football Union, at the behest of its president Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister of the country, put forward Tokumasu as a candidate against Gregory. Here, the story moves into the realms of high-power politics involving the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
As host, Japan has to guarantee the IRB gets GBP96 million (HK$1.12 million) from the showpiece. The tsunami-wrecked country is unhappy with this figure - the England RFU in 2015 will have to pay GBP80 million while New Zealand this year gave the IRB GBP56 million.
'The RWC 2019 guarantee, which is underwritten by the Japan government, was reduced from GBP120 million to GBP96 million in 2008 in light of the financial climate,' said the IRB source. But Japan wants a further reduction.
It is understood a backroom deal has been struck between Lapasset and Japan: give me your two votes - Japan's and ARFU's - and I will restructure that agreement. It is the money which has apparently resulted in all the Machiavellian manoeuvring.
'We have no way of knowing what may, or may not, have been discussed between the candidates and a union or a regional governing body,' said the IRB source.
The JRFU declined to answer questions as to why it is supporting Lapasset and whether the IRB chairman had promised it anything.
Hong Kong, unfortunately, has been caught in the crossfire.
According to Gregory, if he had been elected, he would have gone to Las Vegas tomorrow and backed Beaumont 'as instructed by ARFU'. Instead it will be Japan's Tokumasu with the vote.
The battle lines have been drawn with Beaumont having the support of Australia's John O'Reilly and New Zealand's Steve Tew. It is believed that other foundation members, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, will also back Beaumont.
Lapasset, meanwhile, has been globe-trotting these past few weeks, trying to secure the votes. He made a special trip to Laos to attend the council meeting a fortnight ago, and it is believed his presence swayed Asian countries to vote for Tokumasu and not Gregory in what was an acrimonious meeting.
With all the rancour, Hong Kong can only hope that Beaumont wins.
'If Lapasset gets a second term, who knows what will happen, especially to our hopes of having a few games, or a pool, of the 2019 World Cup,' said an HKRFU source.
Gregory said: 'It is Japan and the IRB's decision to make. We want to be part of the 2019 World Cup, but it will be their choice. I offer my hand in friendship to Japan whatever the case. We are friends and I want it to stay that way.'
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