At the risk of taking hyperbole to new heights, it will be the biggest shock in the history of international sport if anyone other the usual suspects (you know who they are) find themselves in the final of this year’s Rugby World Cup. But the rugby playing field is changing and the likes of Samoa, Japan, Georgia and USA are looking to make waves at England 2015.
This year’s World Cup is on track to break records and will make enough money – an estimated £150m plus – to enable the sport’s governing body, World Rugby, to continue making substantial investments in what are called the second and third-tier nations, to drive change in rugby’s international pecking order over the course of the next two decades. In the past seven years £340m has gone into the growth of the sport, and the seeds are beginning to grow fruit.
ON THE RADAR
Brett Gosper, the chief executive of World Rugby, talks of a “conquest strategy” designed to broaden the sport. “If we’re honest, we’re not even a dot on the sporting radar in countries like India and China, but with seven-a-side rugby as the pathway towards the 15-a-side game that is changing rapidly. Think of the participation and commercial opportunities if we can really start making inroads there and in areas like South America.”
It’s a vision that is a far cry from the regulators who have run the sport since international competition began 150 years ago. Suddenly the USA is seen as a potential powerhouse in the short rather than the long-term. “There are three times as many players in the USA now than there were in 2009. That is an unbelievable growth in participation,” says Gosper.
“I am convinced the Rugby World Cup will be staged in the US at some point, providing there’s the interest in commercial terms, and also a real belief that the crowds would be big enough.”
And then there’s Germany. Currently ranked 24th in the world, and with 25 fee-to-air games being broadcast on national television this autumn.
“We’ve made the call in certain areas like Germany to not take broadcasting revenue, but to choose eyeballs instead,” he adds. “The more people that watch, the more chance there is of the game taking off even more. We’re also sacrificing broadcast money in parts of Asia to generate interest ahead of the next World Cup in Japan. It’s a balancing act between generating income and interest.”
The idea of a Rugby World Cup was first mooted in the 1950s but was jettisoned by conservative factions within the sport. It is an interesting debating point as to where the sport would be now had the first tournament taken place 20 years before the inaugural event in 1987. “We’ve only been professional for 20 years,” says Gosper. “This is a sport that is a long way from maturity.”
Even so, the global popularity and reputation of rugby is reflected by the World Cup’s major sponsors coming from Asia, Europe and the Americas, and by Gosper asserting that irrespective of who reaches the final “the competition is already assured of being a commercial success”.
An advertising man by instinct but a rugby politician by necessity, Gosper would love to see the most competitive tournament to date, but more than anything, "I want as many people as possible who are not part of the rugby church to come to our church.” That is the mission statement from a true rugby evangelist.