Brett Gosper

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In London’s bustling Covent Garden district, an official Rugby World Cup shop has sprung up among the upmarket fashion and comestibles brands. “You get everything here, don’t you?” says Brett Gosper, the Australian-born chief executive of World Rugby, rugby union’s governing body. Surrounding him on all sides is the stock of scarves, balls and rugby-themed leisurewear.

“People come to have a look and it’s very international as well,” Gosper says in reference to the shop’s location, adding that “London does have a large number [17] of the 48 games”.

This shop is one small factor behind Gosper’s assertion that the 2015 tournament in England (and Wales) will probably be “the first billion-dollar Rugby World Cup”.

Merchandising and sponsorship are expected to account for around 10 per cent of total revenues, with ticketing contributing approximately 50 per cent, the sale of broadcasting rights some 33 per cent and corporate hospitality the remainder.

“It is a big generator of income for the development of the sport; 85 per cent of our revenue is from the Rugby World Cup,” Gosper says of the tournament.

There are few countries in which staging a big rugby union tournament could be more straightforward. Sports, transport and accommodation infrastructure is in place; security services are experienced and well equipped; the sport has a substantial supporter base — a record 2.3m tickets are expected to be sold, equivalent to about 95 per cent of available capacity; and five of the leading teams are on the doorstep.

I put it to Gosper, who spent the bulk of his senior rugby career in the 1980s in Paris playing for Racing Club de France, that this aligns World Rugby with the zeitgeist, which has turned against construction-heavy projects such as the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

“That is the advantage of a Rugby World Cup: it is low-investment, high-return,” he says. “Twickenham has been revamped quite considerably. A lot of the stadia have taken the opportunity to upgrade themselves, but these are not substantial investments in terms of construction. That is why governments and countries are so interested in hosting a World Cup.”

With the 2019 competition claimed by Japan, he says that four countries ­— France, Ireland, Italy and South Africa — have confirmed their interest in the 2023 event.

World Rugby expects to emerge from England 2015 with a record surplus of approximately £150m. Such a figure would outstrip the £122.4m surplus registered from France 2007 and £91.6m by New Zealand 2011.

The injection of development funding that England 2015 should provide is well timed. Next year rugby will return to the Olympics, in its short-form seven-a-side format, for the first time in 92 years.

According to Gosper, World Rugby has invested around £35m in sevens over the past four years, partly with the Rio Olympics in mind. “Our involvement in the Olympics and getting Olympic-ready has probably caused us to invest about £8m or £9m more over the last four-year cycle leading up to Rio than we would have had we not been in the Olympics.” He points to a new four-year sponsorship deal with HSBC, the banking group, for the annual series of tournaments known as the World Rugby Sevens Series. “That has been a considerable step up,” he says.

With World Rugby starting to receive significant sums of money from the Olympic movement — $13m over the next Olympic cycle — and with the exposure Rio 2016 will bring, is there a danger that the short-form sevens tail might start to wag the long-form 15-a-side dog?

“I don’t think that is an issue,” Gosper, the son of a long-time member of the International Olympic Committee, replies. “Our belief is that sevens helps 15s a lot.”

In addition to the financial impact, he refers to the “educational legitimacy” the Olympics gives. “You suddenly find yourself on the curriculum in countries like Russia, China and the US.”

As World Rugby’s ambitions have grown, so have the physical abilities of the players. Since 1995, rugby players have become considerably bigger and faster. This prompts two questions: are injuries in this tough contact sport more frequent, and has doping played a role?

Gosper says statistics “tend to confirm to us that injuries haven’t increased since 2002”. With regard to concussion, one prime recent focus where statistics do suggest an increase, he indicates that the injury is today getting the attention it deserves.

On doping, he emphasises that “we do see the temptations in a sport like rugby.” The issue “is at that borderline level where younger players are trying to get into elite rugby”. Some 6,000 tests a year are conducted in the sport. Gosper discloses that World Rugby recently increased its testing and education budget by 27 per cent and has adopted the athlete biological passport, which monitors changes in blood profiles over time. “The whole area of supplements is unregulated,” he continues. “I don’t think we have communicated strongly enough in the supplements area. We have begun to do that now.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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