Given that England and France are two of the key members of Rugby Europe (RE) it was hardly a surprise when it supported the re-election in May of Sir Bill Beaumont as chair of World Rugby, and of Bernard Laporte as his vice-chair.
Beaumont, who led England to the Grand Slam in 1980 as a lock forward, earned a second term by a margin of 28 votes to 23 over his previous vice-chairman, Argentina’s Agustin Pichot.
“We were supporting two of our members – it was entirely legitimate,” the Rugby Europe President Octavian Morariu told insidethegames. “We need to be consistent. You need continuity when you have a project – like Bill Beaumont has. Like I have.
“You need continuity to be able to develop the project. And it’s very difficult to judge people by small pieces – it stands in any field of activity. That is very, very important. Because sometimes the road is very long and you need time.”
Continuity is indeed key for Morariu - who earned two caps for Romania as a number eight, and also became the first player from his country to represent the Barbarians – as he seeks a third and final term as RE President in an election scheduled for December 4.
Morariu, 59, took up his position at RE in 2013, and combines it with his duties as an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member – he was chair of the Evaluation Commission for the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, and is now chair of the IOC Future Host Cities Commission for the Winter Games.
Re-election within the sport he has known and played for so much of his life – his father, Viorel Morariu, captained Romania – is currently occupying much of his attention.
His opponent in the election, the Russian Rugby Federation’s deputy chairman Kirill Yashenkov, has voiced ambitious plans in recent weeks.
Yashenkov said on November 5 that he was looking to secure new sponsorships which would help him create a "new European club tournament".
He claimed it would be "similar" to the European Rugby Continental Shield - Europe’s third-tier tournament which was discontinued in 2019.
"Funding is not more difficult because I have an intention to sign an agreement with several new sponsors which are close to me and are ready to support the organisation," Yashenkov claimed.
"I believe we will sign the agreement in the last weekend of December or the first weekend of January.
"I have an intention to double the budget of Rugby Europe within the next two years.”
In announcing his candidature in October, Yashenkov said his main goal was “to declare Russia as a rugby power, as well as to pay attention to the development and improvement of the level of the Rugby Europe Championship in order to get closer to the level of the Six Nations teams.
"For example, we definitely need to introduce TMOs [television match officials] in all games of the championship, as well as pay attention to the development of countries that are in lower leagues."
Igor Artemyev, Russian Rugby Federation chairman, commented: "There is stagnation in European rugby, and we believe that with our help, rugby in Europe will receive a new impetus for development."
Morariu’s response to these comments is measured, with the occasional glint of steel.
“For those who follow more closely the Rugby Europe affairs,” he told insidethegames, “it is already known - as the Russian Union already knows too - that the launch of a Rugby Europe club competition and the necessary investment has already been voted by Rugby Europe Board in March 2020 and that this competition will launch for the 2021-2022 season.
“Also, agreements have been signed with media and commercial partners: River Media and Wasserman. A meeting with the union members concerned in the competition is currently taking place as I address your questions.
“I must add that Rugby Europe has already tripled its commercial income in the past 18 months and is already on a significant growth trajectory.”
Answering Yashenkov’s comments about declaring Russia as a rugby power and getting the level of the Rugby Europe Championship closer to that of the Six Nations tournament, Morariu added: “We are already doing it.
"I think there is somewhere a fundamental misunderstanding of what Rugby Europe and its governance structure and Presidential role is. The role of the President is to work for the benefits of all members.
“The ambition of Russia to emerge as a rugby power is completely legitimate and something we obviously encourage. But - it must be done by respecting the rules and values of our sport and not come at the detriment of other members.
“As mentioned previously the development of the Rugby Europe Championship product is one of our priorities. A lot of progress has been made and more innovations are coming in relation to the execution level of international games – concerning stadiums, video-production quality, media coverage, and marketing policy over ticketing, hospitalities and merchandising.
“Much of what is claimed – either we did it, or we are on the way to do it, or we have initiated it. Most of it. For example, Rugby Europe TV has existed for years.
“As far as the new club competition – we have already met the Unions several times, we were engaged in structuring the competition. Obviously the pandemic stopped the delivery but discussions are underway including on the centralisation of rights – obviously we cannot work without doing that.”
To Artemyev’s charge of “stagnation”, Morariu responded: “My first remark is that there are several European countries have already reached a level good enough to compete in the Rugby World Cup like Georgia, Portugal, Romania, Russia or Spain.
“All these countries deserve all efforts from Rugby Europe to progress even further to fill the gap with the top level. It’s a matter of very good second tier countries aspiring to the first tier and being on track. We need to address all of them, not just only one.
“Russian rugby is represented at European level at the moment. They have a seat on the RE board of directors and chair the RE sevens committee."
He added that Russia also hosts a number of RE tournaments and events in XV and sevens rugby, with news emerging this week that they would also host beach and snow rugby events from 2021 to 2023.
“We have a very good partnership with the Russian Union,” he said, “although obviously they cannot host all our events and competitions as we need to ensure a diversified approach.”
On the subject of Yashenkov’s comments about TMOs Morariu responded: "I’m sorry to say that if my dear colleague was following a bit closer the Rugby Europe or even Russia Union matters, he would know, he should know that the implementation of HIA / TMO has already been approved by RE Board earlier this year in March and will be in effect from next year’s Rugby Europe Championships. It’s done.
“As for the charge of ‘stagnation’, let me say there has been a lot of progress made in the last couple of years that has been well appreciated by our members and by World Rugby.
“More countries than ever participate in Rugby Europe competitions. We have notably seen a sharp increase in sevens due to the Olympic inclusion and this is a very positive development.
“This has allowed notably to articulate a proper four-year planning for sevens with contracts signed with hosts of competitions for the next four years - which is a first for Rugby Europe. We are really getting structure, but also we are now able to plan in a solid manner.
“New forms of rugby are becoming increasingly popular, notably beach and snow rugby, and we have created the first European Championships of both disciplines through a great partnership with Russia.
“The gap is still there with the Six Nations, which is a private commercial organisation, not a sporting organisation. We concentrate on improving the Rugby Europe Championship so participating teams are improving both on the pitch and off the pitch to reduce the gap.
“Our main goal is to reduce that gap. Regular discussions take place with the Six Nations and World Rugby and we try to find common goals.
“In terms of commercial revenues, Rugby Europe has tripled its revenues - in non-COVID years - thanks to new partnerships and sponsors and clearly the momentum is there.
“Women’s rugby is also improving fast in both XV and sevens events and represents a sizeable opportunity to continue rugby development – we are very keen on gender equity not only on the pitch but off it.
“Rugby Europe works also in much better collaboration with World Rugby and soon to be launched new global competitions will also provide new development opportunities for unions.
“For all these reasons I really don’t think we can talk about stagnation. Those who really know Rugby Europe, those who have been there for years, they can tell the evolution and bear witness to all our developments.”
Morariu readily acknowledges Russia’s status as an emerging rugby power – among other such powers.
“Russia has undoubtedly made a lot of progress during the last decade,” he said. “In terms of sporting results, the men participated in the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and 2011, and the men’s sevens team were European champions in 2016 and 2017.
"Their women have been sevens European champions six times since 2010. There has also been the creation of a domestic super league.
"Russia organised the Rugby World Cup Sevens Championship in 2013 – it was at the Luzhniki Stadium and I was there, it was very well done – and also the 2019 European Under-18 Championships in Kaliningrad.
"They are one of our best units, like Georgia, Romania, Portugal or Spain.”
Regarding the gap between Rugby Europe’s top countries and those currently in the Six Nations, which has remained unchanged for 20 years, he added: “The gap is there and we all know that, and some elements not in Rugby Europe hands must evolve if it is to be closed.”
Georgia is currently engaged in the Autumn Nations Cup 2020 along with England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy and Fiji. Georgia lost 40-0 to England on November 14, and yesterday by 18-0 in against Wales.
"The main goal is to raise the level and then play the top countries," Morariu said. “They have to close the gap. But also we have made a lot of gains in terms of organisation and marketing. This is also important. It’s not only the level of the game but everything that is around."
The predecessor to Rugby Europe was the Fédération Internationale de Rugby Amateur (FIRA) which was established in 1934 to administer rugby union in Europe outside the authority of the International Rugby Football Board, which became the International Rugby Board in 1998 and World Rugby in 2014.
Rugby Europe was created in 2014, under Morariu’s guidance. Since then the staff has risen from two to 10.
“The elements that RE control are improving every day,” he said. ”Competition management, match officials, digital capabilities, commercial revenues, professional staff structure.
“Structure is paramount – that is my main challenge – turning the amateur structure that was there under FIRA to a professional structure. And this is what we did. And this is how we stand today.”
If he could fast-forward 10 years, what would Morariu hope Rugby Europe would look like?
"Our first goal is preserving and spreading the values of our sport, making rugby a stronger and more inclusive sport throughout Europe – especially outside the traditional markets,” he replied.
"We need to fill the gap between major and emerging unions by growing the numbers of players in all countries – especially in non-traditional countries, developing alternative practices, sevens especially to strengthen the Olympic nature of the sport, which is a huge asset to rugby.
“We also need to continue to develop solid and sustainable unions in many European countries and to provide pathways for emerging nations to elite levels through regular continental or global fixtures and competitions, whether Six Nations or global World Rugby annual competitions.
“You see already a country like Georgia is competing in the Autumn Cup – so this is also an example of what lies ahead of us and what we can do in the future.”
But Morariu underlines the need for careful relations with the Six Nations, against whose chairman, John Jeffrey, he played during his career.
“On the other hand we are talking about the Six Nations, which is such a great competition and we need to be very careful when we speak of it because nobody wants to damage it – on the contrary we want to reinforce it. I have constant discussions with the Six Nations on this, and I will speak to them again very shortly about our plans for the future.
“Obviously we would like them to be more involved, to make a greater contribution to Rugby Europe and the second tier of unions in Europe, so it’s a constant dialogue. There is no competition between us, they are partners – let’s be very clear.”
Beyond his Rugby Europe preoccupations, Morariu will need to turn his mind to his responsibilities as chair of the IOC Future Host Cities Commission.
“It was a true honour for me when President Thomas Bach appointed me Chair of the FHC,” he said. “It came together with a very clear sense of responsibility towards the Olympic Movement and all its stakeholders, starting with the athletes.
“I am favoured in my mission by the provisions of Agenda 2020 and of the New Norm built around the principles of sustainability, durability, flexibility and reduction of costs and also truly privileged to work together with very experienced and highly competent colleagues in the commission, with the support of a great team at the IOC HQ in Lausanne led by Christophe Dubi and Jacqueline Barrett.”