Exclusive: Rugby considers World Cup every two years as future of game is laid bare

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World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont (centre), chief exec Alan Gilpin (left) and World Cup 2023 CEO Claude Atcher (right) - PAUL GROVER/ REUTERS
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont (centre), chief exec Alan Gilpin (left) and World Cup 2023 CEO Claude Atcher (right) - PAUL GROVER/ REUTERS

Rugby union could follow football in proposing plans to stage a men's World Cup every two years by exploring the idea of a biennial showpiece tournament.

The radical move is “being considered”, admits the chief executive of World Rugby, as the sport’s custodians mark the midway point between the 2019 and 2023 tournaments by mapping out their vision for the future of the game in an extensive interview with Telegraph Sport.

Alan Gilpin, his counterpart at RWC23 Claude Atcher and Bill Beaumont, chairman of World Rugby, have gathered in Paris to discuss the issues that currently sit at the heart of the game.

And a week after football turned the dial up on its own plans to stage a World Cup every two years, it is the revelation that the idea could be in considered in rugby’s corridors of power that could have the most wide-ranging implications for the fabric of the game.

“Biennial World Cups have been considered before and they’re definitely something that we will continue to consider” says Gilpin. “It’s an interesting concept, especially when you think about the global development of the women’s game, too.

“But the men's calendar is very congested and complex, with a lot of different stakeholders, and we have to make sure we engage with them all before we consider a World Cup every two years.”

Gilpin, Atcher and Beaumont, the three wise men charged with guiding the sport from Japan to France, are taking stock of the game: from the France 2023 ticketing problems, to World Cup scheduling and expansion; from biennial tournaments, to private equity; from a change of World Cup hosts, to how artificial intelligence might hold the key to future law changes within the sport.

But the politicking can come later. For now, the fun stuff, the reason why we’re all here: the sport. Sitting in searing sunlight five miles from the Stade de France, where the World Cup will begin on September 8, 2023, the most pressing topic for discussion is the opener: Les Bleus vs the All Blacks.

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont (centre), chief exec Alan Gilpin (left) and World Cup 2023 CEO Claude Atcher (right) - PAUL GROVER
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont (centre), chief exec Alan Gilpin (left) and World Cup 2023 CEO Claude Atcher (right) - PAUL GROVER

“My first discussion was with the coach of the French team (Fabien Galthie) - because [France v New Zealand] is a special game - and with Bernard Laporte,” Atcher says. “And he said, ‘No, no, Claude, we are doing this - it’s the best way to promote the event, the best way for France to begin the competition, and they still have to play them at some point - it doesn’t matter if it’s the first or the third match!’

Gilpin adds: “We have traditionally started the tournament with perhaps not the two strongest teams in a pool. But, we just thought, ‘We cannot not have that as the opener’.”

Following on from the success of 2007 - “a sort of catalyst for rugby in France,” Beaumont says, “with Sebastien Chabal the face of the tournament” - a World Cup across the channel is built for success. The template is there; it is almost a banker selection due to the country’s affinity with the sport. The committee are aware of that, Atcher says, and are focusing more on the “human legacy” of the tournament. Sustainability, social responsibility and employment are the buzzwords, but there will also be a focus on using local produce which, in France, is gobsmackingly obvious. “No imported wine!,” Beaumont adds with a smile.

It has not all been plain sailing, however. The selling of one million tickets over two years out from the start of the tournament is undoubtedly impressive, but there was well documented chaos with the online purchasing platform. Atcher insists, however, that these teething problems have been rectified in time for the next sales phase on Sept 28.

“No one could have expected the kind of activity we saw,” he says. “The first day that we opened, three hours before tickets went on sale, there were already 250,000 people connected to the site.

“You can have as strong a ticketing system as you like, and we worked with different companies to test systems... The first day we had just seven minutes of breakdown in the system; the second day, we had queuing issues. We had over €7 million worth of tickets bought on fraudulent credit cards, which is unbelievable. When those cards got to the purchasing stage, they were declined and that affected the queue.

“On the third day, there were no issues, and we were selling 4,000 tickets a minute. I don’t think that has happened before at any sporting event.

“We are totally confident for the next phase.”

The logistics - the off-field matters - for 2023 are now in rude health, but what about beyond? Will rugby ever be presented with a more gift-wrapped opportunity to align the global season than when the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020 and global rugby shut down?

“There is far more collaboration now,” Beaumont says. “But, last year, you had countries that hadn’t played an international that were desperate to get matches in. You had the Rugby Championship that they largely played in Australia, the Six Nations then had to be finished and then there were club competitions to finish, too. It was a huge amount of matches that we had to squeeze in.”

Gilpin adds: “I don’t think it was a perfect time [to align]. We had so many of our stakeholders - not just national unions but professional leagues and club owners - who were just focusing on whether they were still going to be there in two months’ time.

“But there has been more positive discussion on the global calendar in rugby than there has been in the last 10 years.

“We did a really deep piece of work that received massive engagement from the unions, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, Premiership Rugby, other leagues around the world, asking whether July and November were the right Test windows? So we looked at the alternatives - and we were all very open with financial information - and we came back to, if we turned things around, it wouldn’t make a material difference so we’d be best off sticking with what we’ve got.

“With that knowledge, the next conversation was how to make what happens in those windows as meaningful as possible, for the growth of the game, and providing opportunities.”

Progress will take time, but there is a sense that World Rugby has taken on board the long overdue necessity of increasing the equity between the traditionally well-funded nations and the traditionally under-funded nations. The governing body is putting its money where its mouth is, by funding two new Pacific franchises for Super Rugby; and the Rugby Europe Super Cup - a new club competition featuring franchises from Georgia, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Israel, Netherlands and Belgium - will begin in the autumn. The aim, of course, is to expand rugby’s global reach - “trying to” achieve a regulated global season, Beaumont says - but, in doing so, the overall standard must improve.

Preliminary investigations are under way to look at the likes of the US and Canada, Argentina and Uruguay, and Russia as World Cup hosts, too.

"And this World Cup will take a week longer,” Beaumont adds. “That was largely in collaboration with the players. They felt that, in the past, it was often the ‘bigger’ countries that would play every weekend and have longer rest than ‘smaller’ countries. Now all teams will have a minimum of five days rest between matches.”

Gilpin adds: “We’re up to eight weekends and seven weeks, but we have done a lot of modelling for the future. If we decide that we’re going to extend to 24 teams, which might be the ambition, then, actually, when you move to six pools of four, you don’t need any longer.

“So we think we’ve probably arrived at the longest possible tournament we can have in the rugby calendar, but there’s now flexibility to expand without making the tournament bigger.”

So why has it not already been done?

“There’s no block,” Gilpin says. “But we’re already at a situation where you work incredibly hard with a number of nations who qualify for the World Cup to make sure they arrive competitive.

“We have to invest in the next 10/12 teams now, not wait until we make a decision to expand, so that if we push up to 24, those next four arrive competitive.

"Private equity could help. It’s well publicised that some of those discussions have taken place. As an organisation, we’re always looking at where the opportunities are to invest quickly as part of our strategic plan to grow the game sustainably. But the key is: what will be sacrificed in the future in order to achieve something in the short term?

“We are funding those types of positions, working with the unions. And it’s not just head coaches, but conditioning programmes, academy programmes, and, now, most importantly, beyond national team competitions.

“Just throwing money at it is never going to help - they need support and resources."

Beaumont adds: “We also look at their fixtures in a build-up to a World Cup. This year, for instance, Tonga are playing England in November. When did that last happen? You have Georgia who are playing France, too.

“We have to keep on investing in these countries so that the gap is not that vast when they are in a World Cup. For 30 minutes in Japan, Namibia did challenge New Zealand - they had that moment of glory.

TJ Perenara scores a try for New Zealand against Namibia in the 2019 World Cup - PA
TJ Perenara scores a try for New Zealand against Namibia in the 2019 World Cup - PA

“They were never going to beat them over 80 minutes, but for that period of time, it was a great thing for Namibian rugby.”

Expansion and innovation are top of World Rugby’s list of priorities. Analysis of the current law trials will be data-driven, Beaumont reveals. And, although it is "early days", artificial intelligence could play a role, too, in an unprecedented move for rugby. Could you, with AI, model the effects of a law change without having to trial it, for example?

“We are having interesting conversations with Capgemini [a tech consultancy firm] about AI modelling for the laws; this could have significant benefits for injury reduction and the speed of the law review and trialling process, but these are early days,” the former England captain says.

The obvious question regarding the law trials, however, is why now? Two years from a Rugby World Cup, rather than four, which would have given teams maximum amount of time to prepare before the next showpiece?

"Within a cycle, what we try not to do is change the laws 12 months out from a World Cup, so that teams have time to prepare," Beaumont says. "And we have to find teams who will actually trial some of these. Obviously, there are some laws being trialled currently and we will get the feedback from that in May next year.

Gilpin adds: "There’s a lot of complexity in the law review cycle which is often misunderstood, which is understandable, because it’s complex.

"We always look at it, broadly, from two perspectives: can we make the game safer and can we make the game more entertaining? Ideally, can we achieve both with the same change?

"The pace of change, I think it frustrates people sometimes, but in a sport as complex as ours, and with some of the risks that rugby carries, it must be done in a controlled manner."

Those risks, with the upcoming landmark legal case over alleged failures to protect players from the risks caused by concussion, are well trodden.

"We want to use sanctions - yellow and red cards - to drive behaviours to make the game safer and more entertaining," Gilpin says. "Yes we are seeing more red cards, but we are also seeing a change in tackle behaviour, which is what we’re trying to drive.

"Players don’t go out by and large to damage each other. But what we want is for players and coaches to take recklessness out of it, too.

"Although there have been a lot of red cards, we have seen that behavioural change. That should now mean that we see red cards going the other way as the players adapt to the new laws. Again, we will see how the red-card replacement affects that.

"There has been lots of discussion around orange cards, too - maybe a 20-minute card while keeping red and yellow."

Anecdotally, the thought, certainly among a group of British and Irish Lions legends, is that abolishing replacements except in case of injury is the key to making the game safer and more entertaining. Progress in that regard is "ongoing".

"I had a good cup of coffee with Mr McGeechan in Skipton the other day to discuss it," Beaumont says. "It would be great if we could get to trial it for a season.

"You have to be careful that it’s not abused, but it’s something that we’re open to, without a doubt. Would that give us a different shape of player? We don’t know."

These are conundrums that will define the future of rugby. For now, however, all roads lead to Paris, for which the final word lies with Atcher: “[Preparing for a World Cup] is like a match: 10 minutes before the end you might be winning, but the result is not until the final whistle. We are focused until the end of the final whistle on October 28.

“We’ve done a great job thus far, but the last 10 minutes will be crucial.”

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