The world in union: Alan Gilpin on the future of the Rugby World Cup

The head of Rugby World Cup reflects on the 2015 tournament, looks ahead to the Japan event and the bidding process for 2023.

The world in union: Alan Gilpin on the future of the Rugby World Cup

Since its inaugural tournament in 1987, the Rugby World Cup has become one of the leading single-sport events on the global calendar. And when rugby union turned professional in 1995 - following on from the immeasurable success of South Africa’s Rugby World Cup that year - the quadrennial competition grew with great alacrity, expanding to 20 teams in 1999 in order to be more inclusive. 

The passion and physical intensity of rugby union naturally lends itself to stirring moments such as Jonah Lomu’s one-man wrecking-ball performances, South African captain François Pienaar receiving the Webb Ellis Cup from Nelson Mandela in 1995, and Johnny Wilkinson's last-gasp drop goal in the 2003 final. 

Until now, the Rugby World Cup has been exclusively hosted by rugby union’s traditional countries of Australia, New Zealand, England, Wales, South Africa and France. The most recent tournament, held in England, in 2015, was hailed as a triumph mitigated only by the hosts’ poor showing and early exit. 

In 2019, however, the sport’s governing body World Rugby is looking to expand its horizons, and the next iteration will be hosted by the developing rugby nation of Japan. 

Speaking to SportsPro at the World Rugby Confex 2016 in London, Alan Gilpin, head of Rugby World Cup for World Rugby, looks back at the 2015 tournament, ahead to the challenges presented by the Japan event, and at the bidding process for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.    

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You are coming off the back off a strong 2015 Rugby World Cup in England. From your perspective, what was successful about the tournament and what didn’t work?

From our point of view, when you think about the role that Rugby World Cup plays in the mission to grow the sport, I suppose there are two key elements. 

Firstly, it is to have a competitive, compelling tournament that we can use to grow the global rugby audience. That is partly about the host territory and the success of ticket sales and the success of fan engagement, with things like the fan zone and the festival of rugby but also, of course, the global rugby audience. We certainly saw a very successful Rugby World Cup last year in that regard. 

The second key area is that Rugby World Cup remains the thing that financially drives everything else that World Rugby does. Again, we had a commercially successful tournament in England last year. We are really building on the back of that as we move forward. 

It was a great tournament, we expected it would be. It is, of course, easy to be very satisfied but it certainly met expectations - surpassing them in some areas, although there are some areas that we could improve on, and we will take what we have learned as we begin to do the initial preparatory work for Japan 2019. It is a great platform to move on from but it is about moving on each time for every Rugby World Cup. 

When you are hosting a Rugby World Cup in a recognised rugby nation, like England, there is a solid infrastructure in place. The next edition is in Japan, which is not a traditional rugby powerhouse. What are the challenges of putting on a global rugby tournament there?

Yes, to some extent it is the opposite, but Japan is great shape from an infrastructure point of view. They have some great venues, a few new builds in the schedule of the 12 venues and cities for 2019. We are well down the road in establishing and nurturing a great partnership with the Japanese organising committee, which, as you know, isn’t just about the Japanese Rugby Football Union [JRFU] but about the Japanese government, the local governments across each of the 12 host cities, and the host prefectures that support them. 

A lot of what we are doing now is making sure that those big building-block pieces are in place from a venue and infrastructure perspective. They are into a team selection process, which is an absolutely key part of delivering the right landscape for the tournament to be played on. To be successful, we know that those building blocks need to be in place early: that is the work that we are focused on now.

There are challenges; you are dealing with a much smaller inherent rugby supporting audience. 2015’s success for the men’s national team has done wonders for building the excitement and building an audience but there is a lot of work to do to maintain that growth in the audience between now and when the tickets go on sale in 2018. 

Like in anything, there are different challenges but also huge opportunities. I think that the decision to go to Japan was taken on the basis of: let’s be brave and take Rugby World Cup as a property beyond its existing strongholds and extend the rugby community into Asia. I am confident that we will deliver on that.  

You have never hosted a Rugby World Cup outside of the sport’s traditional countries, where you know that people will come and watch; this being your showpiece event a half-full stadium would obviously not look good. With that in mind, are ticket sales for the 2019 tournament a worry?

I would not say at this stage that ticket sales are a worry. It is about building a plan with our colleagues in Japan around how they are going to market the tournament. What we have seen - even for the Rugby World Cup in England, which has a big rugby following - is that you are drawing on a fanbase that is far beyond the regular rugby-supporting audience. In England we drew on the ‘big event fan’ to fill the extra seats and I think that Japan has that: it is a country that is passionate about being a host.

It would be easy to just look at Tokyo and see everything that is going on there, including the 2020 Olympics, as a challenge. Actually, if you go to Sapporo in the north or down to Fukuoka and Kumamoto in the south, they feel a real sense of ownership of Rugby World Cup, which is important to us because they have got to get behind the tournament to make it a success. We have done some good work already on those marketing and ticketing plans with the Japan 2019 organising committee about how we take that from planning to execution over the next year.

You have mentioned Tokyo 2020, where there will again be rugby sevens played. How much will you be using the success of 2016’s sevens and the anticipation of the 2020 competition to help sell the Rugby World Cup?

It certainly helps the Rugby World Cup. The Olympics is the ultimate big event in terms of the sporting world. However, there are some fantastic synergies, no doubt, and there are lots of good conversations taking place at a number of levels with Tokyo 2020 about what those synergies are.

Inevitably, there will obviously be some challenges around competing for resources, investment and share of noise. But it definitely helps that we are an Olympic sport and we had a very successful Rio 2016. I think that there is still a good excitement about rugby sevens in Tokyo 2020, too. They are playing in a venue that we will also be using, which will help in conditioning an audience and media market. Whilst it is easy to think that we have this ‘big beast’ nine months after us that will create some challenges, however, I think it definitely creates more opportunities.

Have you spoken with the organisers of any other major global sporting events, such as soccer’s Fifa World Cup or the Olympics, in order to learn new ideas to help in the running of the Rugby World Cup?

The other major event in my work is the Rugby World Cup host selection process, which we are well into for the upcoming 2023 tournament.  We spent quite a bit of time with the likes of Fifa, Uefa and the International Olympic Committee [IOC] looking at how they go about selecting hosts, what can we learn from them, where can we improve from what others do and improve on what we have done in the past.

We spent a fair bit of time with Uefa, pre and post Euro 2016, to understand what they do differently to us. While their environment is, of course, different to ours, when you are looking at single-sport events there are lots of parallels between what we need to do and what they do.

Hopefully it is a two-way process. We are talking to them about the success of 2015 and in return they have shared with us their successes.

How important do you feel that a successful host nation - on the pitch - is to creating local interest and the overall atmosphere of the tournament?

It clearly has some impact. The major fear that we had going into 2015 was that England wouldn’t make it out of what was obviously a very tough pool: would that mean a drop in media interest, spectator interest and some the festival that goes around the tournament because the host nation becomes less engaged?

I think that one of the really pleasing things about 2015 was that it certainly wasn’t the case. After England exited we continued to see fantastic crowds, a great atmosphere and the fan zones were still full: I think that people bought into the big event that is Rugby World Cup.

We are a pretty mature property now and I think that is what we will see in Japan. The England 2015 event has probably shown us that, whilst it great to have the host successful on the pitch, the tournament doesn’t live or die by that. Actually, we talk a lot with the organising committee in Japan and the host cities’ stakeholders that their measure of success shouldn’t be the national team performance. It is about what a great host they are going to be. In addition, how fantastic the tournament will be domestically but that they are projecting Japan across the world.

Of course, you would love to see the hosts do well every time and it gives you that extra bit of confidence. But Japanese rugby is moving in the right direction and they are feeling confident about being a host.

 

Do you feel that Japan’s slight geographical isolation from rugby’s traditional rugby nations could result in fewer fans travelling to the Rugby World Cup?

Not really. What we have noticed over the last couple of Rugby World Cups is that France’s fans have been the largest represented group of travelling fans, even in New Zealand 2011. I think that we are very lucky that we have got a rugby-supporting community that loves to travel to the big events, whether it is the British and Irish Lions tour or a Rugby World Cup. I think that we will see a bit more excitement about it being in a new destination, somewhere most rugby fans haven’t been before to watch the sport. Already, there has been a strong international interest.

What can you tell us about the process for the voting for the following Rugby World Cup in 2023?

We are into that process already. We decided a while ago that we would have a longer host selection process for 2023. It is all about trying to make sure that the process is as professional, as fair and as transparent as possible. It has to stand up to scrutiny internally for us, our members and our stakeholders but also the host candidates, who are investing large sums of government in bidding for Rugby World Cup. We must ensure that the process is the best it can possibly be.

We went through the applicant phase over recent months; we have now just entered the final phase of the process, which is the candidate phase that launched on 1st November that takes us through to next summer and those three countries - France, Ireland and South Africa - are submitting very detailed bids to us. We have been keen to ensure that they fully understand what is required of them, that their respective governments completely understand what is required from a host, and the sort of investment and commitment that we will need.

The decision on who will host 2023 will be made next November. So we are about a year away and that seems like a long way to go but it takes the bidders that much time to align their own stakeholders and make sure that for them and for us everyone who needs to be behind the bid is behind the bid.

Obviously Ireland are yet to host a Rugby World Cup, but they are not exactly a second-tier country so you have three developed, top-tier countries bidding for 2023. Do you have any other second-tier countries in mind that could host Rugby World Cup in the future?

Yes. Once we have got through this process we will look strategically at what the future holds for Rugby World Cup and obviously 2027 will then be at the front of our minds. We know that there is great interest in hosting the tournament in some developing nations: we had the USA involved at the expression of interest stage for the current process. I think that we would like to see them back in the future.

We know that Argentina is very interested; South America is obviously an area where the sport has grown very fast. We are in Asia now and then back in an established market for 2023, and then we will look strategically at what the future will hold. Ultimately it is about having candidates for that process that can do the job, really want to do the job, invest in it from a government perspective and help us grow the sport. Growing the sport is ultimately what we want to do: taking rugby to new territories and communities is a big part of it.

Is it important to hold the tournament in one country or are you open to shared bids - or a pan-continental event like Uefa’s Euro 2020 will be?

From our point of view, having a host that is fully committed - like England 2015 - with a host government that is fully behind it, with a set of host cities that are fully aligned is a good recipe for success. Our criteria is certainly is a single host territory and I don’t see any reason why we would change that in the foreseeable future.

What the Euros are doing for 2020 is interesting, obviously very ambitious, but I think it is harder to galvanise support behind the tournament if you are moving it around.

What would a successful Japan 2019 be from your point of view?

For World Rugby a successful Japan is about delivering on the growth of the sport, particularly in Asia. That said, it is not just about Asia because we know that a competitive and compelling World Cup will grow the sport all around the world, but actually we do have a lot of plans for the development of the sport in Asia. We are working very hard now, not only with the Japanese constituents but actually with Asia Rugby [the regional governing body] as a region to see how we can use 2019 to accelerate the growth of the sport.

We have collaborated with Asia Rugby in an ambitious project called the Asia One Million, which is to have a million new players in Asia before 2019. Legacy is a word that I think has become a bit of a dirty term in sports event hosting but, actually, legacy is all about planning about upfront on what you want to deliver and being realistic in what you want to invest in it. England did that well and used Rugby World Cup superbly to develop not only in England, but to partner with Rugby Europe. I’m sure that we will see the same approach work in Japan in 2019.

We want to not only move the World Cup on each time as a better event with a bigger global footprint but actually leave behind a very tangible legacy for the host country and region.