There is no way that one man can change the course of a veteran and gigantic ocean liner such as World Rugby, on his own. Indeed, even the smallest course correction always appears to cause a furore followed by a vote followed by a rejection, however well meant for the future of rugby it may be. Mark Egan, therefore, had help. But there is no question that his leadership, his passion and his grasp of the world game have played an outstanding part in the blueprint for a new and prosperous future for rugby which we reveal exclusively today. He has allowed the rest of the game to aspire to a top table which has always been the preserve of the old guard, a group never inclined to serve any of the sport’s wider interests. Rugby, almost overnight, is free, open and better.
Egan first came to wider prominence after leaving Trinity College to go to Oxford University, where he captained the Dark Blues in an amazing Varsity match in 1990. Oxford had a very poor run in the Varsity match over the seasons and their team in 1990 under Egan appeared to be no great shakes – although they did have in their squad two pedigree Australian players in Brian Smith and Troy Coker. As the term wore on and the Varsity Match approached, persistent rumours grew that there was dissent in the ranks, that it involved Coker and Smith with alleged assertions on their part that they should be taking over. This created a divide, with Egan in some ways caught in the middle. The action he took could easily have led to a disastrous Varsity March. He decided for the sake of honour and harmony, that neither Smith nor Coker, his two best players, would play in the Varsity Match and he went out on what appeared to be a grievous hiding to nothing. Smith had been captain in the previous year and had dispensed with the service of Lynn Evans, a redoubtable Oxford coach. Egan brought back Evans for the 1990 match. Such was the intensity of the occasion that the Oxford team, by all reports, were crying in the dressing room before the game. Out they went, lacking pedigree. Egan had an absolutely magnificent match, he was all over the field, inspiring and cajoling. Some of the Oxford team played way above themselves. Oxford won. It was total affirmation and many who were present at the post-match inquest will always remember his grace and statesmanlike comments. Clearly, he was a man who would resurface, which he did after a highly successful period in business and in rugby in Kobe in Japan.
Egan has been with World Rugby through five World Cups, and now a senior executive on the body. He has carried various job titles but always with the same aim – to encourage the Other Nations between World Cups and especially in tournaments, to decide where best to spend the investment from World Rugby – some of it rather meagre, to say the least; to set up competitions for them to play in. It was an horrendous task, but one which he pulled off quite magnificently. His job seemed to mushroom as the years went by — he has help to appoint coaching and other back-up staff to the Tier 2 teams, often needing to do so out of the blue, and helping to claw together squads from all parts of the world. He has even had to race up and down motorways with kit and other rugby necessities for the impoverished teams. You never got the impression that Egan’s department was either over-staffed or over-funded and the fact that in most World Cups the Tier 2 nations – as they were once called – have managed to perform well, sometimes heroically so, is a magnificent achievement. Now as head of competitions and performance and together with colleagues, he has performed the latest miracle. He put together a large group from outside the elite nations — from the game’s regional bodies, its national coaches and chief executives, its presidents and players, crammed them in to the same room. And thrashed out a structure for the Other Nations for which the sport has been desperate for nearly 30 years. Then he convinced the rest of World Rugby that he and his colleagues amongst the paid employees have a vision which needs to be fulfilled, and funded; as a neutral he has ghosted past the normal narrow-minded objections and convinced a whole lot of people including the ruling executive. He is not there yet. There are many details to fix, many rivers to cross. But you sense that the momentum is unstoppable. And that his status as one of the sport’s great administrators of all time, is secure.