Leading international rugby figures have refuted suggestions from Wallaby great Phil Kearns that World Rugby board member Bart Campbell has a “conflict of interest”, dubbing the allegation “spurious” and “risible”.
Campbell, who was appointed to the World Rugby executive council two years ago, is a partner with the sports marketing company Left Field Live, which is co-ordinating an Asia Pacific-wide tour of English Premier League teams, including Manchester United.
The tour has coincided with recent Wallabies games and Rugby Australia officials have privately and publicly suggested it affected crowd figures, including a game at Optus Stadium in Perth at which 47,668 turned out – well short of the 60,000 capacity.
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But World Rugby, which is led by England’s Sir Bill Beaumont, refuted suggestions Campbell had broken a code of conduct, while New Zealand chair Stewart Mitchell said Kearns’s observations were wrong and “spurious”.
“I read the comments from Phil Kearns last week with bemusement and concern,” Mitchell said.
“Bart Campbell is a widely experienced senior executive operating in the international sports industry. As such we value his contribution to our board. His business interests are fully disclosed and known to us, as I understand they are to World Rugby.
“To suggest he is personally responsible for a poor rugby crowd attendance in a highly competitive Australian sports market is risible. I seriously question the motive behind such a spurious allegation.”
While Campbell declined to comment to The Australian, a World Rugby spokesperson in a statement also dismissed insinuations that Campbell had breached its code of conduct.
World Rugby confirmed that “within its integrity code, World Rugby operates a robust Code of Conduct governing all persons appointed to the international federation’s council, board and committees.
“In line with best practice, the Code of Conduct necessitates all persons to declare any potential conflict of interests relating to any item of business.
“These are recorded within an interests register and any potential conflicts are managed appropriately to ensure fairness.
“As with all directors serving on World Rugby’s executive committee and Rugby World Cup board, Bart Campbell has fully complied with the reporting requirements under the Code of Conduct.
“Conflicts arising, if any, have been dealt with appropriately.”
A NZ rugby insider and supporter of Campbell said the allegations were “plain wrong”.
“The premise that football is entirely responsible for the below-capacity turnout in Perth is a nonsense which simply cannot be substantiated.
“The suggestion that anyone with involvement in sport outside rugby is conflicted from fulfilling their duties as a non-executive director in rugby is self-serving and plain wrong.”
Another said Rugby Australia’s continued attacks on New Zealand Rugby and its officials were unwarranted and noted: “NZR’s position is simple. We need each other, and together we are stronger.
“NZR and its Super teams are fully committed to working out a new revenue share arrangement with RA for Super Rugby broadcast income from 2024 in the appropriate forum, as per the contract the current RA chair and CEO negotiated last year. If RA chose an alternative path as they are entitled to do, we will reluctantly and with a heavy heart wish them well.
“Surely RA do not think attacking NZR will help them achieve the outcome they desire? Petty squabbles in public are harmful to the game, it’s commercial appeal and are generally unedifying for the sport.
“Sensitive, constructive conversations around a table remain the best way to resolve open issues. Continued public saber rattling just hardens resolve and is detrimental to the process.”
An experienced defamation lawyer, Matthew McClelland QC, was asked whether Campbell had been defamed but wouldn’t personalize it to Phil Kearns, preferring to make his comments in a general sense. McClelland said the statement that someone had engaged, or even potentially engaged, in a conflict of interest was defamatory.
“To be accused of being in a conflict of interest is a serious allegation,” he said. “Ordinary readers would likely think less of the person so accused. If the person was involved in a senior public position, such an allegation could seriously damage their reputation and, I expect, could even cause the person actual financial losses.”
McClelland said that allegations of conflicts of interest would normally have to be defended under a truth defence.
“If a reader is unable to distinguish between what is opinion and what is fact, then a defense of honest opinion will fail,” he said.