Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Match-fixing at RWC could kill sport's integrity

IRB boss concerned that taint of corruption will turn fans off game that has built a reputation for fairness and honesty.

IRB CEO Brett Gosper. Photo / Getty Images
IRB CEO Brett Gosper. Photo / Getty Images

Next year's Rugby World Cup will be divided along classic have and have-not lines, making it highly vulnerable to match-fixing.

The threat of sabotage is real - almost half the players in England will not be paid for their labour. The minnows will be there, hoping that one big sniff of the oily rag will keep them going for the duration.

For those who have made such enormous sacrifice with only per diems as reward, how might they feel when they see how the other half are living? And how might they feel if out of the shadows come shady figures offering bags of loot for missing a few tackles that most of the world expects them to miss anyway?

"The concern is high," says IRB chief executive Brett Gosper in relation to the prospect of match-fixing at the World Cup. "We are using third-party monitoring in a lot of our tournaments now. We pay a company to come in and monitor electronically across vast numbers of betting shops - registered and unregistered - to see if there is irregularity in the betting.

"A lot of the advice we are getting is that rugby is not a sport where there are high instances of betting in any case; the sport doesn't lend itself to that kind of betting. Having said that, we will act as though it is a high-risk sport because we can't be complacent. It is an area where we do have to keep a very close watch because there are players - you can say it is the lower-paid players - but any players, any referee of any nationality is vulnerable to this kind of influence."

Gosper, who was appointed chief executive of the IRB in 2012, has kept a relatively low profile since he came into the hot seat.

There is no sense of him being a revolutionary or having any particular agenda. But that may change in the next 15 months as the World Cup is the place of judgment for everyone connected with the game.

A match-fixing scandal at a World Cup would stop the sport dead in its tracks. The game is built on a code of integrity and honesty and if that becomes tainted through corruption on the biggest stage, Gosper can turn off the lights on his way out.

The IRB can't afford for any World Cup to come up short on any front. The World Cup is where the governing body makes all its money. It is the World Cup where a new audience is won. Get it wrong and the game is in trouble.

Next year's tournament already provides assurance on the financial front. It will be a massive commercial success. Ticket sales, broadcast fees and sponsorship deals are going to be bigger than they have ever been. The game will be flooded with money. Box ticked.

But a few issues that were developing in 2011 haven't been dealt with and are considered serious problems. Gosper has as much reason for concern as he does optimism.

"We want it to be hugely competitive. We want low winning margins, a couple of surprises through to the semifinals, marvellous atmosphere and full stadia, no incidents and no discipline problems." That's Gosper's ideal scenario for the next World Cup.

It's a stretch to see that being the case, especially his hope that there will be no disciplinary problems. The IRB's judicial system has long been considered a bad joke: not only in the erratic and nonsensical sanctions, but also because of the length of time the process takes. Players who transgress often feel like Solomon Grundy: commit a misdemeanour on Saturday; cited on Sunday; worry about it Monday; hearing on Tuesday; sanction passed Wednesday.

Then too often punishments that don't fit the crime.

Gosper, at least, is promising to do what he can to drive through the message that sanctions against those who target the head have to climb in severity. Concussion has become the game's single biggest problem and Gosper agrees the IRB can't lead the way in terms of protocol and best practice for those who suffer blows to the head and then be lenient with those who attack it.

"The head is sacrosanct. I think you will increasingly see that," he said. "You will see increasing sanctions. We are trying to set the tone.

"I believe this is an area where we must take the lead and show that this is an area of high sensitivity and protect the players."

Part of this battle is ensuring that match officials are encouraged to use the available technology effectively. The global trial of allowing referees to view video footage to determine whether foul play has been committed or whether an infringement occurred in the build-up, is likely to be used at the World Cup.

But Gosper isn't keen to see referees call in the TMO as a matter of course.

"There is a tension between integrity and truth and the flow and continuity of the game," he says. "There is a feeling that as you head into a World Cup, the priority is going to be truth and integrity of the game over the continuity aspect.

"We have to get it right. We can't have bad decisions. There is a bit of pressure and responsibility on the referees. They are damned if they go upstairs and damned if they don't but at the same time they have to take responsibility for those reasonably obvious calls."

One problem which has been ignored since the last World Cup is the growing number of "foreign" players in test teams.

In 2011 there were in excess of 60 players at the tournament who were born in New Zealand. There were also significant numbers of South Africans representing other teams and, perhaps of most concern, Pacific Islanders playing for teams other than Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

Those numbers are expected to climb significantly by the time the 20 squads are finalised next year. In the 2013 Six Nations, more than a quarter of the players initially selected for the tournament were born outside the country they represented.

The reality is that European club competitions are awash with "foreign" players who have become eligible for another nation on the three-year residency rule.

What's also partly driving this increase is the trend towards national unions working in conjunction with their clubs to target and fund the purchase of offshore players. New Zealand, given its talent base, is the prime target. In recent years the likes of Jared Payne, Nathan White, Daniel Bowden and Bundee Aki have been lured by big money club contracts.

The players in question are given messages about their respective chances of playing test football once they qualify on residency grounds.

Those nations losing players to offshore markets believe the three-year residency needs to be reviewed. They argue that the international game will lose its credibility if it continues to source as many players as it does through residency and that a World Cup could end up looking like an extension of club rugby. But those losing are in the minority, which is why Gosper doesn't believe the eligibility rules as they stand are a threat to the tournament.

"I know it is an area that creates a bit of an emotion because people like to see what they would call nationals from that country. You will always get some fringe exceptions that will cause a bit of surprise but the integrity of those teams is well established and abuse of the system is not high. We all want to see national teams playing against national teams."

- NZ Herald

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