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Beer, squad sizes, CVC, and growing the game - World Rugby launches the World Cup

It was an interesting press conference in Tokyo with the tournament starting in three days.

IT TOOK JUST four questions at the official World Cup opening press conference in Tokyo for beer to come up.

This followed after the positive news that 96% of tickets for the tournament have been sold, with many other signs that Japan is embracing the hosting.

But, clearly, one Japanese journalist was highly concerned as he pressed World Rugby’s top dogs on whether they think venues around the country will be prepared for the thirsty supporters who are coming their way. 

japan-rugby-world-cup World Rugby had their official World Cup opening press conference today. Source: Koji Sasahara

“We’ve talked a lot about beer, amongst other things,” answered tournament director Alan Gilpin, who is also World Rugby’s chief operating officer, before calming any alcohol-related fears. 

“I also wouldn’t underestimate rugby supporters, they normally find where they can get beer,” chipped in chairman Bill Beaumont.

After the rather light-hearted start, things took a turn as World Rugby’s head honchos fielded questions about doping, the future direction of the game, CVC’s investment into the Six Nations, and more.

Joe Schmidt has been among the coaches who have expressed their frustrations at the limit of 31 players in their official World Cup squads, pointing to player welfare as the key reason why that limit needs to be increased in the future.

“We might look at that,” said World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper. “We’re never entrenched in one particular position. That position [from coaches] has come quite late in the day.

“We believe that there are good player welfare parameters around the size of the squads. Coaches generally want more players at their disposal and we understand that.”

Gilpin followed up by saying that World Rugby will “definitely review” the squad limit. Gosper cautioned that an increase to 32 “does have cost implications” but World Rugby will surely find the money to pay for flights and accommodation of 20 additional players in the future. Watch this space and expect 32-man squads in the near future. 

On the doping front, Gosper insisted that rugby does not have a “systematic or institutional doping problem” at the elite level, but this issue will rumble on. Out in Tokyo Bay earlier in the day, the Springboks had brushed off questions about drugs in their rugby culture. 

There may not be systematic doping programmes in rugby but there are many reasons for eyebrows to be raised and World Rugby must continue to work hard in this area.

japan-rugby-italy The Italy squad with some sumo wrestlers at their welcome ceremony in Sakai, western Japan. Source: AP/PA Images

The prospect of the governing body’s grip on the sport slipping is back on the agenda once again with reports that CVC, a private equity firm, are close to agreeing on a deal to purchase a stake in the Six Nations. 

This comes hot on the heels of World Rugby’s proposed Nations Championship collapsing. Their concern now is that CVC has no genuine interest in the future of rugby, but instead is more concerned with making as much money as possible in the short-term.

“We had another alternative on the table when we were looking at investment in the global game and how we could take the global game forward with the world league and so on,” said Gosper.

“We generated the possibility of high funding. The Six Nations have decided to take another route. I’d have to say we don’t know enough about the ins and outs of that deal, it’s been shrouded, so we can’t say too much at this stage and we don’t know if it will be good or bad.

“Certainly, as big an investor in the sport as a private equity firm like CVC will create influence, and that’s something that in some areas could concern us. So it’s important we understand from CVC exactly what their medium to long-term plans are.

“The areas concerning you are with a high-funding commercial owner of the sport that isn’t the governing body then certain calls might be made that aren’t in the interests of growth or perhaps player welfare. We want to make sure it’s for the right reasons.”

Gosper confirmed World Rugby has sat down with CVC in the past and stressed the need for everyone to “ensure what we’re doing is for the good of the sport.” Again, watch this space.

There was much talk of the need for World Rugby and World Cup organisers in Japan to genuinely grow the game and build a lasting legacy from this tournament, with some passionate questions on how they plan to ensure this happens.

Good results for the hosts on the pitch would be the best way to get more children into the game, but there appear to be genuine impediments to that happening due to the archaic structure of Japanese rugby.

There is much hope that the Pacific Islands nations of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga can make an impact on this World Cup, and Gosper is convinced that can happen. The CEO said World Rugby has sunk £60 million into ensuring lesser-heralded nations can make an impact at this tournament while claiming that they have been providing feedback that suggests they are better prepared than ever. 

japan-rugby-samoa Samoa at their welcome ceremony in Yamagata, northern Japan. Source: îíê_íºñÌ

Unfortunately, a handful of the Pacific Island nations’ players are not at the World Cup, having retired very recently to focus on club rugby. 

There are strong suspicions that those players came under pressure from their clubs to remain available to them rather than jetting off to Japan.

“This is something that has occurred in the past, I understand,” said Beaumont. “But every player who wants to be released for international rugby has to be released by his club. Whether it’s a World Cup, U20s or sevens, he has to be released under our Regulation 9.

“That is something that is sacrosanct that we have to protect in our international brand. If players choose not to play international rugby, that is their decision. We want all the best players playing in a Rugby World Cup.”

The absence of players like Nemani Nadolo and Joe Tekori suggests that the decision is really not in their hands.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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