World Rugby boss hails Olympics effect
Brett Gosper using sevens to tap new markets
Spending $500M on game in 2009-16 cycle
Also faces doping and concussion challenges
At Heathrow Airport, a giant billboard shows model and actress Cara Delevingne, her fist raised, with a curious expression on her face and the slogan “Don’t Crack Under Pressure” underneath.
It was 1990 when Brett Gosper – now boss of World Rugby – penned those words in Paris as an advertising slogan for Tag Heuer.
Some 26 years on, the poster greeted him on landing in London after last month’s Hong Kong Sevens – and the watch manufacturer’s revived catchphrase could similarly apply to his high-pressure job as CEO of the global game.
Then there’s a World Cup outside of the established nations in Japan in 2019, the fight against doping, and the perils of concussion and player welfare.
In 2016, all eyes are on rugby in Rio, where the shortened sevens format will make its debut.
“Rugby at the Olympics is beyond living memory,” Gosper tells CNN in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Dublin ahead of this weekend’s Paris Sevens tournament.
“It’s a big deal and an extraordinary opportunity for rugby to introduce itself to places where it does not usually reach. We now have visibility that only the Olympics can bring.”
That has led to increased funding from national Olympic committees into rugby that would not have been previously forthcoming, and also means expanding into new markets such as Russia and China.
Last month, Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba signed a 10-year deal with World Rugby to revamp grassroots rugby and competitions, and to raise awareness of the sport in the country via the internet.
However, while global sevens could help catapult the sport into new territories with its Olympic bow, is there not the risk that, like T20 in cricket, it could devalue the popularity of the Test arena?
“With T20 cricket that seems to have compensated for the decline in support for Test cricket rather than created it,” Gosper says, “but in rugby there is no decline at national and international level. The sport is in rude health. What rugby sevens does is create further opportunities.”
There are those in XVs rugby, however, who have raised fears of the impact of sevens on the wider game, according to Simon Chadwick, professor of Sports Enterprise at the UK’s Salford University.
“I think there are concerns that sevens is skewing people’s perceptions of the game,” he says. “It’s certainly true that rugby is at a crossroads, with sevens at the Olympics reaching a whole new audience.
“And you need to remember that in spite of what people think, it’s not a global game – there’s still a relatively small number of countries.
“I travel a lot and it’s not on people’s radars. The narrative we know in England, Australia, New Zealand etc. just doesn’t play out.
“There’s the potential around the world for rugby to engage new participants and new audiences but World Rugby needs to break down preconceptions, and it will need strong and dynamic leadership.”
Gosper believes he has the pedigree to do that – his father Kevan, a former 400 meters runner turned sports administrator, is an honorary member of the International Olympic Committee.
Gosper Sr. has helped deal with two major sporting scandals, being involved in football ruling body FIFA’s reforms as well as sitting on international athletics’ ethics board, aimed at clearing up corruption within track and field.
“We’ve been in some IOC sessions together,” he says of his father. “He may be 82 but he’s got the sharp mind and the energy of a 50-year-old. With his history, it’s good to bounce things off him.”
The younger Gosper has overseen sporting success since taking over the reins in his current role in 2012, following a business background spanning back to his playing days in Paris for Racing in the 1980s.
He came close to the international ranks, twice trialling for the Wallabies after representing his country at junior level, but never made it to the very top of the game. He did play against the All Blacks on three occasions – but points out he lost all three.
However, he has excelled in his second rugby career as an administrator.
Last year’s Rugby World Cup in England exceeded expectations with a 98% attendance record – Gosper says proudly “FIFA and the Olympics would be jealous of that” – with 2.47 million spectators through the turnstiles and a further 1.5 million watching at locations outside the venues.
It contributed £80 million ($115 million) to World Rugby’s coffers – helping the ruling body’s aim of spending £350 million ($500 million) on the global game in its 2009-16 investment cycle.
He says the only way the tournament might have been improved was if England had made it out of the group stage – being the first host nation to fail that test.
But his pride is not just on the record-breaking numbers and revenue, but in terms of the spectacle put on. More tries were scored than ever before and the winning margins were smaller than ever before, most notably between the tier one nations and the tier twos.
Gosper’s other pleasure is in the fact that, feeling overall responsibility for player welfare in his role, the tournament ended without any career-threatening injuries.
He lists player welfare as one of rugby’s two major challenges, the other being the fight against doping.
“There’s quite a lot of vocal, emotive noise in and around concussion,” he says, “but we’ve done a lot of education to show that we’re doing everything we can with an evidence-based approach to ensure maximum safety.
“But I do feel a responsibility towards the players. I remember being asked on the eve of the tournament what I was most worried about and my main concern really was that the players got through safely and without serious injury.”
The other major issue is in the anti-doping crusade. In Britain alone, there are 25 rugby union players banned by the UK Anti-Doping Agency for drug offenses.
The majority of that comes not from the elite level but the lower tiers of the game – where many offenders seek not only to improve performance, but to match the impressive physiques of top players.
“We’ve acknowledged that there’s an issue in that area. It’s a societal issue, not just rugby,” Gosper says.
“The anti-doping program in the UK goes deeper than elsewhere but I’m sure the situation exists elsewhere. There’s a ‘look culture’ creating the demand for illegal drugs. It’s clear we need more education at all levels.”
Japan’s chance to shine
For the first time, the latter tournament will move outside of the established nations. Since its 1987 inception, it has been hosted by the southern hemisphere big three – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa – and the northern hemisphere quintet of England, France, Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
“It’s the boldest choice we’ve had for the Rugby World Cup,” Gosper admits, “and there’s always a risk when you make bold decisions like that. But over the last couple of years, we’ve tried to minimize the risk and maximize the opportunities. That has been strongly helped by the performance of the Japanese team.”
Japan stunned eventual semifinalist South Africa in their opening group-stage clash to win 34-32 in what was the biggest shock in World Cup history.
Gosper was invited to Japan after the tournament by its prime minister, to whom he presented a ball from the Cherry Blossoms’ most famous win.
He says global rugby followers increased at the World Cup by 30 million from 250 million, a third of those new recruits coming from Japan alone, while the Sunwolves recently become the first Japanese team in the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby tournament.
“We have conducted meetings twice a year in Japan, and when I first came here and got in a taxi, rugby wasn’t really on the radar,” Gosper says.
“But it now seems to be in all areas of Japanese life – very much on the mainstream media.”
His goal is to expand the game further still in Japan and elsewhere. To coin another Gosper-ism – this one penned for a Philips advert back in his advertising days – his target is to “Let’s Make Things Better.”