World Rugby board member Bart Campbell has denied allegations from Wallabies great Phil Kearns that he has a “conflict of interest”.
Campbell, who was appointed to World Rugby’s executive council two years ago, is a partner in sports marketing company Leftfield Live, which coordinates the Asia Pacific tour of a wide range of English Premier League teams, including Manchester United.
The tour coincided with recent Wallis games that Rugby Australia officials have privately and publicly suggested would affect crowd numbers, including a game at Perth’s Optus Stadium which drew 47,668 – less than the 60,000 capacity.
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But World Rugby, chaired by England’s Sir Bill Beaumont, rejected the suggestion that Campbell had breached the code of conduct, while New Zealand chairman Stewart Mitchell said Cairns’ comments were wrong and “wrong”.
“I read Phil Kearns’ comments last week with nostalgia and concern,” Mitchell said.
“Bart Campbell is a senior executive with extensive experience working in the global sports industry. As such, we value his contribution to our Board. As far as I understand, his business interests for World Rugby are fully defined and known to us.”
“It is difficult to suggest that he himself is responsible for poor rugby public participation in the highly competitive Australian sports market. I seriously doubt the reasoning behind such false allegations.
While Campbell declined to comment to The Australian, a World Rugby spokesman denied allegations that Campbell had breached its code of conduct in a statement.
World Rugby confirmed: “World Rugby has a strong code of conduct to guide all people appointed to the International Federation’s council, board and committees in its position statement.
“In line with best practice, the Code of Conduct requires anyone to declare any conflict of interest in connection with a business transaction.
“These are recorded in the register of interests and any conflicts will be processed appropriately to ensure fairness.
“Like all directors who serve on the World Rugby Executive Committee and the Rugby World Cup Board, Bart Campbell fully complies with the reporting requirements set out under the Code of Conduct.
“Conflicts, if any, have been properly addressed.”
A NZ Rugby insider and Campbell supporter said the allegations were “blatantly wrong”.
“The notion that football is solely to blame for Perth’s subpar participation is nonsense that cannot be easily proven.
“The idea that anyone involved in a sport outside of rugby would conflict with the role of a non-executive director in rugby is self-serving and wrong.”
Another said Rugby Australia’s continued attacks on New Zealand Rugby and its officials were unjustified: “NZR’s position is simple. We need each other, and together we will be stronger.
“NZR and its Super Teams are fully committed to working with the RA on a new revenue share arrangement that will deliver Super Rugby broadcast revenue from 2024 in an appropriate forum, as per the contract discussed by the current RA chairman and chief executive last year. If you choose a path, we reluctantly and with a heavy heart wish you the best.
“You really don’t think RA attacking NZR will help them achieve the results they want? Public petty squabbles are bad for the game, not good for business and not good for the sport as a whole.”
“Reasonable and constructive conversations around the table remain the best way to resolve open issues. Sustained public outcry will stifle resolution and undermine the process.”
Experienced defamation lawyer Matthew McClelland QC chose to comment generally, saying Campbell’s reputation had been damaged but not personal to Phil Kearns. McClelland said the statement that a person is engaged in, or may even be involved in, a conflict of interest is defamatory.
“It is a serious charge to be accused of being in a conflict of interest,” he said. “Casual readers may think little of such an accused person. If the person is involved in a high government position, I imagine that such a charge could seriously damage their reputation and cause the person real financial loss.
McClelland said allegations of conflicts of interest should normally be defended under the truth defense.
“The defense of honest opinion fails if the reader cannot distinguish between opinion and fact,” he said.