25 years of professional rugby: Global and gender growth key to future of the sport

Japan put on a well-received World Cup in 2019
Japan’s hosting of the 2019 World Cup was deemed a resounding success both on and off the field

World Rugby boss Brett Gosper says “geographic and gender growth” will drive the future of the sport, as rugby union seeks to reach new markets and expand the women’s game.

Twenty-five years on from the start of the professional era, Gosper believes a “simpler and safer” sport will emerge over the next quarter of a century.

The World Rugby chief executive also adds he is comfortable with the increasing influence of private equity, which can help take rugby union into a “new era”.

In an interview for a special BBC Radio 5 Live programme on Thursday marking the first 25 years of rugby union turning professional, Gosper says the coronavirus pandemic is a “massive challenge to put it mildly” which will lead to some “leaner times” for the next year or two.

But he believes the game will emerge intact, and says he can only be optimistic about the future.

“In 1995 it was stuttered and disorganised, like many things when freed up from regulation,” Gosper said.

“There is now a lot more coherence and understanding of the sport and its fan base than there was in those days. There is a collective will to do great things for the sport in terms of growing it.

“Coming from where we have come from – seeing the interest it engenders whether in the World Cup arena or the Olympics arena – this sport only has one direction to go, so you can only be optimistic.

“Yes, we would probably like to have moved a bit faster and brought on some new markets faster, which we are working on now.

“Geographic and gender growth is hugely important for the future, and we are trying to get that right.”

‘Simpler and safer’

Northampton scrum-half Matt Dawson
Former England and Northampton scrum-half Matt Dawson, pictured here in 1996 in the early days of professionalism, has spoken about his experiences after suffering a number of concussions in his career

Keeping players safe in a game which has become increasingly physical is a conundrum that continues to blight the sport, but Gosper insists there is more understanding of injury than ever before, especially with players more involved in the decision-making process.

“It is a physical game, but we believe it is safer now than it has ever been, despite the number of collisions which have increased dramatically,” he added.

“It is a safer game because we understand the dangers better than we did in recent years. The head injury protocols have protected so many players that we didn’t know were perhaps being harmed in the past.

“There is much more protection off the ball as well as on the ball, and I think there is a lot more of an evidence-based approach, and testing of laws, to ensure the players are as protected as they possibly can be.

“We have now had two symposiums, where the overall objective is to create law to drive down injury rates.

“I think the game will be simpler and safer [in the future]. I think that will be the evolution. A safer, simpler sport as we go forward is the direction of travel.

“Our job is to make it a spectacle, but in the best possible way, as safe as possible for the players, at the elite level and the community level.”

‘Private equity is a fact now’

The last two years have seen the increasing influence of private equity in rugby union, with CVC taking commercial stakes in the Premiership, the Pro 14, and on the verge of completing a deal with the Six Nations.

In 2019 Gosper voiced his concern over CVC’s tightening grip on the sport, but now feels the investment giants could help usher in a period of exponential commercial growth.

He also feels more stakeholders across the game will look to relinquish some of their commercial control to private equity.

“It’s a fact now. Private equity is now in the game, whether in the club level or international level, and we have had a number of meetings with CVC over recent periods,” he explained.

“We are very comfortable with the contribution they will make, and the deals that are being done and have been done have also given us comfort in the way they have been outlined and the distance between the commerciality of the sport and the governance of the sport.

“Particularly at a time when revenues are difficult, the money is most welcome for sure. And it is a sign people feel there is enormous potential in this sport still to run. Maybe this kind of investment will create an exponential growth.

“It’s potentially a new era, and I think we will see a lot more of that [private investment] to come.

“They also provide an independent voice in the room and are less emotionally invested which can be very helpful as a stabiliser.

“If it accelerates the growth of the sport, but doesn’t upset the management and governance of the game, then I think it can be a good thing.”

Hear more from Gosper, as well as RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney and former player-turned-administrator Rob Andrew on 5 live Sport from 19:30 on Thursday.

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