PARIS (Reuters) - Bill Beaumont has been re-elected as World Rugby chairman by beating Argentine Agustin Pichot in the first round of voting and called for unity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the sport's governing body said on Saturday.
Former England captain Beaumont won by a 28-23 margin to secure a second consecutive four-year term -- the result being announced a week earlier than expected.
Frenchman Bernard Laporte, who was running unopposed, was elected vice-chairman.
"Now is not the time for celebration. We have work to do," Beaumont said in a statement.
"We are tackling COVID-19 and must implement an appropriate return-to-rugby strategy that prioritises player welfare, while optimising any opportunity to return to international rugby this year in full collaboration with club competitions for the good of players, fans and the overall financial health of the sport."
Rugby, like most sports, has been on hold as the novel coronavirus spread across the world, casting doubt on whether the 2020 international calendar will be completed.
"I am determined to ensure that the spirit of unity and solidarity that has characterised our work in response to an unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic is the cornerstone of a new approach that will deliver a stronger, more sustainable game when we emerge with new enthusiasm, a renewed purpose and an exciting future," Beaumont added.
The 68-year-old succeeded France's Bernard Lapasset in 2016 and his re-election will be confirmed at World Rugby's annual Council meeting on May 12.
"Bill is ideally placed to lead and unite rugby unions in strengthening the game so we can address the immediate and longer term challenges," Bill Sweeney, chief executive of the RFU, said of Beaumont's victory.
Laporte added: "Congratulations to my friend Sir Bill Beaumont on his re-election.
"I would also like to express my best wishes to Agustin Pichot, a legend of Argentinian rugby and a great rugby leader.
"I also want to thank all unions who have expressed their opinion in this important ballot, giving a clear mandate for the governance which Bill and I will undertake on their behalf."
Beaumont and Laporte face many challenges, not only in guiding the sport through the coronavirus pandemic.
While he benefitted greatly from the support of the Six Nations unions, Pichot's vision was admired by the southern hemisphere countries who backed him exclusively.
The votes of Japan, Fiji and Rugby Africa are thought to have swung a tight battle Beaumont's way.
He has vowed to align the seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres as well as setting up an alternative to the Nations Championship proposal backed by the SANZAAR nations but blocked by the Six Nations.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Additional reporting by Martyn Herman in London; Editing by Ken Ferris)