Rugby union is unquestionably a sport that is intent on expanding its horizons. The game’s governing body, World Rugby, reinvests 95 per cent of its revenue directly back into the sport, with a large proportion being invested into second-tier countries and the USA seen as the major emerging market that it wants to crack. Mark Egan, head of competition and performance at World Rugby, discusses the recent sevens tournament at the Rio Olympics, how World Rugby can be more inclusive to new markets and how it is helping the developing nations.
It is no small coincidence that rugby union’s preeminent competition, the Rugby World Cup, has been won exclusively by New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England. The sport’s blue-chip teams continue to produce the finest players of each generation and - aside from the odd aberration - monopolise rugby’s top table and tournaments.
Although those world champion nations continue to post the highest participation numbers globally and, in fairness, reinvest into exceptional grassroots programmes, it is unquestionably the budgets of their respective unions that set them apart as real world leaders. Other traditional European rugby powers like France, Ireland and Wales can call on similar riches but are yet to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
Nevertheless, rugby - for so long perceived as a sport that was run as an old boy’s network - is aiming to readdress the old world order, create an even playing field and increase the sport’s global reach.
The fruit of World Rugby’s investment in second-tier nations has begun to see more than green shoots over the past decade. The small island nation of Fiji are without doubt the outstanding team on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series - an annual series of international tournaments in rugby sevens, a seven-a-side variant of the sport, that is played across the globe – and were the winners of the inaugural men’s rugby sevens’ gold medal.
In XVs, Argentina - who until their third place at the 2007 Rugby World Cup were considered a second-tier nation - are held up as an example of what a rising country can achieve. Following their success on the global stage in France nine years ago - a performance they would go on to match in England in 2015 - they were invited to join the southern hemisphere’s annual international round-robin, the Rugby Championship. The South Americans initially found life difficult in a strong, intense competition but since their first win - over South Africa in 2014 - they have begun to display consistent performances at an elite level.
“The game is growing very fast: we are going to break the eight million player barrier soon and it is going up at a significant rate,” says Mark Egan, head of competition and performance at World Rugby. “Since 2009, the amount of players has almost doubled. The impact of the Olympic Games was great. We have already seen a very big impression from our ‘Get into Rugby’ programme, which we launched with a view to getting a really strong legacy for the Games not just in Brazil but around the world.
“So those numbers, in terms of new players that have come and experienced a rugby event or a training programme, are over a million people this year. That is very significant and we need to keep developing that, we need to make sure that the unions are well equipped to take advantage of the Olympic profile that we have left.”
It was clearly rugby’s addition to the Olympic programme which has enabled it to seriously push its ambitious global expansion. In previous years World Rugby’s efforts were solely focused on its 20-team Rugby World Cup. Nowadays, it is able to promote a diverse cycle of major global events: from the Olympic Games it moves on to the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland in 2017, the the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco in 2018, and the men’s Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019, before returning to an Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.
The inaugural Olympic sevens’ tournament represented the widest audience that rugby has ever reached: 50 million people watched the matches through various broadcast platforms and participation-wise, in Rio alone, over 100,000 new people took part in specialist rugby programmes in 450 schools.
“The Olympics was very successful on all fronts,” says Egan. “I think that you go into the event quite nervous - it is your first time on the Olympic stage, despite being very successful at all of the other multi-sports events beforehand.
“When you are going to your first Olympic Games, with a temporary venue that is behind schedule and training fields that aren’t ready three weeks out, you naturally fear the worst. At the end of the day, we had such a brilliant sporting spectacle with very strong attendances, incredible reach on social media.
“The coverage that we managed to get from the US market was amazing and we had USA Today saying that rugby is the best sport on the Olympic programme. The feedback that we have received from broadcasters has been amazing. We had a debrief with NBC and they certainly felt that the sevens tournament was a considerable success. We had three days of women and then three days of men. We split the day into three two-hour sessions, which was perfect for the Olympic market consumption. It was a different format for our players but they turned up and put on a great show.”
In 2019, the next iteration of Rugby World Cup is being hosted for the first time across Japan and the following year the Olympics, again featuring sevens, is being held in Tokyo. With two high-profile events being hosted in Japan it is undoubtedly the perfect opportunity to focus on the Asian market. While Japan have made considerable improvements on the pitch - they lost 17-145 to New Zealand in the 1995 Rugby World Cup but in the 2015 competition defeated two-time champions South Africa - no other Asian country has been able to make any serious contributions at a world rugby tournament.
In a bit to address this, World Rugby has embarked on a joint initiative with Alisports, the sports arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba, to grow the game in China, with Alisports fronting an investment of US$100million. The strategic partnership, which was agreed in October 2016, will endeavour to establish the country’s first-ever professional men's and women's leagues, create a sevens programme in the hope that the national team will qualify for the 2020 Olympics, and originate a grassroots programme.
According to World Rugby's most recent statistics, 58,000 people currently play the game in China but Alibaba has optimistically stated that it wants to bring one million new players to the sport within the next five years. As of yet, China’s men’s and women’s teams have never qualified for a Rugby World Cup, nor for the Olympic sevens tournament.
“We need to make sure that we have a very strong Olympic Games in Tokyo,” says Egan. “It is going to be a different environment for us but it is a great opportunity for us to have two fantastic events in a region that has 60 per cent of the world’s population.
“We have our new initiative with Alisports to grow rugby in China but I think that to continue the success that we had in Rio we need to make sure we put up another strong performance in Tokyo. We hope that new countries will come through and qualify into the Tokyo Games.
“We are looking to invest more into Germany - we have seen them come through over the last number of years. They had a very good win over Uruguay recently, which represents the first time that they have beaten a union that’s ranked more than seven or eight places above them.
“There are new markets that we need to invest in but we still need to keep the game strong and take advantage of the Olympic profile. I also think that the women’s game offers us a massive opportunity - through the Women’s World Series, which we are looking to expand, and also through the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland next year. Every year now we have a major global event to promote our sport, which is fantastic.”
Outside of Asia it is Fiji, Georgia, Romania, USA and Canada that World Rugby sees as the nations with the best chance of breaking into the top tier. These countries are seen to have either a strong pool of players, a solid infrastructure or an excellent grassroots programme in place. Nevertheless, their respective unions still rely on investment from World Rugby to develop the above facets.
“We are investing around US$10 million a year now in our high-performance investment programme that is really focused on the top 25 unions in the world,” says Egan. “In this November window we have 47 games involving 28 countries over three weekends, so it is a very busy programme, but I think that we are always looking into the future as well. We are making sure that the likes of USA and Fiji have the right elite competition programme to participate in.
“Georgia, for us, are a priority union within the tier-two union group. They qualified automatically for Japan and have grown significantly over the last number of years in terms of the quality of players that they are producing.
“The massive investment that we put in has helped them but they have also had from a private benefactor who has put in ten high-performance facilities. The real question is now, where do Georgia go next? They are competing in the Rugby Europe International Championship, which they have won for the last six years, and we want to see them compete at the Rugby World Cup at a much higher level. We have targeted them.
“This year, rather than host the Tbilisi Cup, they went on a tour of the Pacific Islands where they played three games - winning two and drawing one. This was a fantastic achievement for them and it is the first time that they have gone on tour to the Pacific. So we are looking for them to play up all the time.”
While Egan recognises that there are still “new markets that we need to invest in”, World Rugby certainly believes that North America is primed for a rugby explosion. The vast population, income and sponsorship opportunities make the USA and Canada the ideal territory.
In a bid to showcase the sport and, hopefully, increase participation in North America, World Rugby staged a first-class Test match between world champions New Zealand and 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-finalists Ireland on 5th November in Chicago. The game was played at Soldier Field in front of 62,300 fans to great acclaim and produced a shock result, with the Irish winning 40-29. Egan argues that, along with a stronger USA or Canada team, fan exposure to top-tier teams is integral to drumming up interest in rugby.
“There definitely is an appetite for those games: we had the All Blacks play against the USA Eagles the week before and we had the Maoris play in America as well,” says Egan. “Obviously we want the USA to play a higher level of opposition in their territory and we have got Ireland playing USA next year on the way to Japan in June. In 2018 Scotland are flying over to the USA and Canada. We are trying to ensure that every year there will be a tier-one nation going in and playing them.
“Hopefully, the doors will open in the US market for an American Super Rugby franchise further down the line, probably on the west coast, and also one in Canada, perhaps in Vancouver. There are ongoing discussions in that regard. Everyone knows the importance of the North American market. Everyone is looking to expand their broadcast space and their fanbase, so it is a no-brainer to be looking at the US market and try to come up with initiative like these recent games.”
Rugby like few other mainstream sports has subtle variants that are now demanding equal airtime to the traditional 15-a-side played by men. The women’s game has long gone from strength to strength and the Olympics has, of course, boosted the sevens game immeasurably. World Rugby is in a place to offer players options and it is much less a case of being born in the right country or going to the right school than it perhaps was 20 years ago.
“We market the sport as one,” states Egan. “Though there is beginning to be a split now, where some unions are centralising their sevens players but the likes of Canada, USA and other strong tier-two unions’ players will still play both sevens and XVs. There will be increasing specialisation as we move into the next four years but at the end of the day we are all about growing the rugby family and developing rugby players, whether you play sevens or XVs.
“It doesn’t really matter but at some stage you will have to make a decision, maybe. If you want to be an Olympian you would have to focus on participating on playing in the World Series but then we saw players like Sonny Bill Williams, Bryan Habana and Quade Cooper looking to have a go at the sevens game as well, and trying to get an Olympic experience. At the end of the day, the coaches will always pick the best players that can play in the Olympic Games: that is the beauty of the sport.
“The players now have options whether to play in a Rugby World Cup or to play in an Olympic Games. If you are talented enough you can do both.”