The election for World Rugby chairmanship between Bill Beaumont and Agustin Pichot was being described as "too close to call" on Thursday night with the votes of Japan and Rugby Africa holding the decisive balance.
With the voting closing on Thursday night, incumbent Beaumont was leading Pichot 24-23 on an initial projection, not accounting for Japan and Rugby Africa who each hold two votes. However sources close to Pichot's camp believe he may be leading by a similar margin. Beaumont appears to have held the Six Nations voting bloc together, which accounts for 18 votes, but has struggled to garner a broader coalition.
His other support comes from Rugby Europe, whose president Octavian Morariu had already pledged his commitment towards the former England captain, Canada, Samoa, Fiji while the North American vote has been split. Beaumont's campaign was mired in controversy when it emerged that Francis Kean, the chairman of the Fiji Rugby Union who had seconded Beaumont's nomination, was convicted of manslaughter.
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After entering the contest at the last minute, Pichot's promise of radical reform has swayed several countries to his side, including Romania which was thought to be behind Beaumont. The former Argentina scrum-half already had the backing of the Rugby Championship votes of South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina as well as the Asian and South American associations. He is also believed to be supported by Georgia, Uruguay, USA and Oceania.
"It really is too close to call," said one World Rugby insider. That in itself is a mark of the energetic campaigning of Pichot, who has been an active presence across social media in vowing to challenge the established order.
Neither Japan nor Rugby Africa, who are represented by Khaled Babbou from Tunisia and Rolande Boro from Burkina Faso, have declared their intentions. Japan is thought to be leaning towards Beaumont after hosting a successful World Cup last year. However, Pichot has promised to help their bid to be integrated into the Rugby Championship. There is also a suggestion that they could even split their vote one vote apiece.
In that scenario, it would be the previously low-key body of Rugby Africa, who could play the role of kingmakers. In a recent interview with the i newspaper – which could be interpreted as a direct plea to the candidates – Babbou complained of Rugby Africa receiving £2 million in funding from World Rugby compared to £7m for England and France. It is also interesting to note that they backed France's bid for the 2023 World Cup, masterminded by Bill Beaumont's running mate Bernard Laporte, over their continental neighbours, South Africa.
The result will be formally announced on May 12 after being audited by PwC.