Friends in rugby.
This year, we celebrate 200 years of rugby.
As legend has it, with a fine disregard for the rules of association football, William Webb Ellis caught the ball and ran with it. A sport was born.
It is with that same spirit of curiosity, enthusiasm and innovation that we begin what will be a massive year for rugby. There are so many reasons to be optimistic as we anticipate what will be a very special Rugby World Cup in France, the debut of WXV and make further decisive moves to advance the sport as a spectacle with player welfare firmly at its heart.
In a rapidly changing post-pandemic world, like all sports rugby must continue to evolve. Amidst accelerating demand for entertainment as well as growing concern around social and environmental issues, it is important rugby keeps moving forwards across everything from player welfare and fan engagement to financial and environmental sustainability if it is to become more attractive, more relevant and more accessible to more people and become a truly global sport.
It is with that global ambition that we begin 2023. New law directives came into effect on 1 January that are aimed at speeding the game up, enhancing safety and making the all-round experience better for players, fans and match officials. These directives include less reliance on the Television Match Official, less time-wasting ahead of scrums and lineouts and the implementation of ‘shot clocks’. Looking long-term, we can anticipate further, more substantive law changes at elite, community and youth levels aimed at further enhancing the spectacle, while underscoring our evidence-based commitment to player welfare.
These changes will take time to settle but, as ever, we value your opinion. World Rugby is not simply an organisation or sports federation, it is a movement; and we want to advance the sport with your voice central to everything we do. To that end we will be launching the largest-ever consultation on the sport in the coming weeks, to build on the work of the recent Shape of the Game Conference to build a better, stronger and more attractive sport together. You will be invited to have your say.
Rugby World Cup 2023 will showcase the very best of our sport on and off the field, and given just how tight the world rankings are, we can anticipate a thrilling and unpredictable race to lift the Webb Ellis Cup. Just as a transformational women’s edition in New Zealand smashed down boundaries, propelled personalities to the fore and captured the imagination of new supporters the world over in 2022, France 2023 will be a fitting 200th birthday party.
Our growth ambition will be on display as we springboard into a decade of world-class events that culminates in USA hosting its first 15s Rugby World Cups. We are delighted to be welcoming Chile to their first Rugby World Cup and know that France will be the most vibrant and welcoming of hosts. If you have not yet got your tickets, look out for the re-sale platform launching later this month – you will not want to miss this one.
Staying with on-field matters, 2023 will be a year of firsts. Underscoring our commitment to women in rugby, the three-tier WXV competition kicks off in October, delivering certainty of annual competition for the first time and a high-performance environment that will underpin increased competitiveness at an expanded Rugby World Cup 2025 in England. Discussions are ongoing regarding an annual men’s competition structure that could be implemented from 2024. This is a topic that is close to my heart and I believe that with players, national unions and international and club competitions working together, we will achieve this central ambition in 2023.
Other highlights to look out for include the start of qualification for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games rugby sevens, the reimagination of our HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and the return of our U20 competitions and the opportunity for the next stars of the men’s game to make their mark.
The year will also see World Rugby continue to evolve to support our growth mission. With certainty of men’s and women’s Rugby World Cups through to 2033, including USA hosting for the first time, we will work hard with everyone in the game to grow the sport globally at every level in line with our strategic mission.
Underpinning everything is an unwavering focus on player welfare. Actioning our six-point plan, we set out to make 2022 a year of focus on welfare in rugby and I am proud of what we have achieved together. But we must not and will not stand still. This year will bring independent and peer-reviewed research from our world-leading smart mouthguard studies. This data will provide insight into the game like never before and will form the basis for further advances in welfare-supporting law, protocols and guidelines.
There will be developments, too, related to the other key pillars of our welfare plan, including our commitment to education and support for former players. All of this will help to secure rugby’s place as the most progressive sport on player welfare.
Sport is emotive. It creates unforgettable moments and great debating points. It is the spectre of drama, the prospect of the unexpected that keeps us gripped. But, within all this, we must not lose sight of the values that are the backbone of our sport, and particularly the culture of respect between players, coaches and match officials. We must collectively ensure that we continually promote, support and protect this mantra.
So, in this bicentenary year, there is much to be excited about on and off the field. I would like to finish my wishes by extending a massive thank you to the rugby family – the players, fans, administrators and volunteers – whose passion and dedication will be central to ensuring that the next 200 years are even more successful and exciting as our first 200!