Reflecting on a marvellous year of rugby in 2016, World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont used his opening address at the World Rugby Conference and Exhibition 2016 in London on Monday to touch on the ‘halo effect’ that rugby’s return to the Olympic Games after a 92-year hiatus has had on the sport.

Plenary 1: Rugby sevens beyond Rio

Picking up the baton, World Rugby’s Head of Performance and Competitions Mark Egan, USA Sevens men’s head coach Mike Friday and Fiji’s Osea Kolinisau, the man who led his side to the gold medal in Rio de Janiero, and HSBC’s Global Head of Sponsorship and Events Giles Morgan took to the stage to discuss how the sport of rugby sevens can reach even bigger heights.

Kolinisau spoke about how the Olympics “is the Mecca of sport”, and Morgan believes it is time for rugby sevens to shout louder as a sport about its undoubted qualities. “I do think rugby sevens needs to be less humble and back its own superstars. If you look at the television audience at the Olympics it’s probably the biggest seen in rugby – in any tournament or code, because it was the Olympics. It is really important that we showcase and celebrate the brilliance of the players, men and women, so that they become more household names. This is the year to do it because they have been on the truly global stage.”

A new study conducted by Nielsen Sports on behalf of World Rugby has found that the number of rugby fans in the six markets surveyed has grown by 16.83 million as a result of the sport's inclusion in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and the excitement generated in both the men’s and women’s events.

Acknowledging the results and reflecting on his own experience in Rio, Friday said: “For a coach you aged every day because of the drama and the excitement but for the spectator it was totally engrossing. It gives us a blueprint for the game of sevens going forward. As a starting point the Olympics has opened the eyes of everyone.”

Sevens is on the up and there are seemingly no limits as to how popular the sport can become. Egan revealed how an expanded tournament schedule built around the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series is being discussed. “We’re locked into a four-year programme of the 10 events and in the women’s series we’ll have six events next season, and we’re look to grow that. But you have to remember we have regional events, and we’ve invested a lot into that.

“We have a strong series event building in Europe, we have three or four tournaments there, and we have another good series building in Asia. There is definitely an opportunity to have an Americas Sevens Series. We are having discussions about that and there’s also the concept of having an Asian Pacific Series.”

Plenary 2: Fan engagement - connecting in a digital world

Fast-paced and immensely engaging, rugby sevens is the perfect fit for the social media age – an area that rugby has fully embraced. World Rugby’s You Tube channel got 60 million video views in the 2015-16 series alone, while Twitter engagement has gone through the roof.

Lewis Wiltshire, Senior Director of Media Partnerships for Twitter UK and Africa, says Twitter is a great way of connecting fans with their heroes. “Pre-Twitter I remember tennis players at Wimbledon talking about people asking them what they did for the other 50 weeks of the year, it was a bit of a standing joke. Now that’s not a factor because fans can follow players and get a sense of what they are doing throughout the year. In a way, you became a better fan,” he said.

For RWC 2015 ambassador Lawrence Dallaglio, it’s good to tweet – even during matches.

“Real-time communication during a game is a wonderful opportunity to drive engagement during a game, because news during a game is old news by the end of the game. It’s quite risky and that’s why, if you are a sports brand, you need to know your role within the sport. You have got to have the same behaviours and pick the right behaviours through the right channels.

“If you are a brand and involved in sponsoring an event, you can’t just dip in and out of a conversation. You have to be there with regularity,” he added. “It is a bit like a friend who doesn’t phone you very often or doesn’t answer their phone, they stop being a friend.

“There are smart ways of engaging with fans, content and context is key. We can all do quirky and funny things but does it achieve your objectives? After all, sport is all about results. Fans want experiences, it’s not just about the 80 minutes of a game anymore.”

Mark Parkman, General Manager, Olympic Channel Services, spoke about how “athletes are the ambassadors”, a theme developed by Alexandra Willis, Head of Communications, Content & Digital, at Wimbledon. “As we know Roger Federer has an extraordinary global following so we’d be foolish not to maximise that and bring to life the things that are taking place at the event. We have a digital audience of 30 million and we try to bring to those not fortunate enough not to have a ticket the experience of what it is like inside the gates.”

Presentation: The grass roots challenge - ensuring rugby for all

Focusing on rugby below the professional tier, guests in the exhibition hall gathered to hear a debate about the wide-ranging challenges facing clubs. Participation was a popular topic.

“I’ve been involved with coaching a Level 5 club for the last 10 years,” said Wayne Morris, Community and CSR Director, Premiership Rugby. “We still have the same amount of players if not more than before but, to get two teams out, you need 60 players now not 40 because the world’s changed and there are different pressures, and people can’t commit to playing every weekend. So, different formats of the game are essential to making sure we are customer-focused. You can’t do the same thing you have been doing for 100 years and expect people to turn up and keep doing it. I think the game is in a good place, I think the game is healthy and I think there is a real interest, I just think we need to shape our offer better to retain those players in the game.”

Connectivity and changing work practices was another issue discussed by Mark Fletcher, CEO of sports website firm Pitchero. “People go into an office and they expect everything to be online and they expect it to be fast and they expect great software and they expect it all to work first time and they are demanding more and more of that in the running of their grass roots clubs. Five years ago, selection might have been done by ringing around everyone from the clubhouse on a Thursday night and now it’s through mobile apps and banking is all done online instead of by cheque.”

Plenary 3: The future of coaching - creating a winning culture

With an Olympic gold medal and an HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series title achieved on his watch, who better than former Fiji sevens head coach Ben Ryan to talk about creating a winning culture. Ryan told a lovely story about how his early days in charge of the team, following his arrival from England, reminded him that coaching is a constant learning process.

“The bottom line is that Fiji were really unfit when I took over. We finished fifth in my first tournament, which is the minimum requirement for the talent that Fiji has.

“When I did some speed tests the times were the slowest I’d ever seen. The strength and conditioning coach told me to get someone to chase them, which I did, and their times dramatically improved. Beforehand, they hadn’t seen the point of running 40 metres between two points without a ball in hand or the chance of scoring a try.”

Pat Lam, coach of Connacht and a Samoan rugby great, revealed his recipe for turning the rank outsiders into 2016 PRO12 title winners.

“I’ve been lucky to be with very successful and very unsuccessful teams and the lessons you learn, and there’s three things that go hand in hand. You’ve got to have a good game – winning structures and systems, you’ve got to have a good culture and you’ve got to have good leadership.

“When you have the players running the environment, driving the culture and making decisions on the field, you have perfect alignment and harmony. It’s easier said than done because a lot of hard work goes into those three things.”

Joining the coaches was Nigel Redman, the former England lock and age-grade international coach, who is now Elite Development Coach at British Swimming. Metaphorically thrown in at the deep end, Redman spoke about the challenges of crossing over into another sport before delivering his mission statement.  “As a coach you ask yourself why you get out of bed in a morning. I get out of bed to help other people fulfil their dreams.”

Presentation: Growth of women's rugby

An engaging discussion on the growth of women’s rugby took place on the exhibition stage involving Australian Rugby Union CEO Bill Pulver, former Ireland captain and Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 ambassador Fiona Coghlan and Katie Sadleir, World Rugby’s new General Manager for Women’s Rugby.

Pulver was able to convey the impact that the Australian women’s sevens team’s success at Rio 2016 has had with young girls across the country being inspired to take up the game by players he called “rock stars” and his belief that the growth of women’s rugby should be central to every union’s strategic plan.

“We have got to aim to normalise the role of women in the game and that starts from the boardroom through to the playing field,” he said. “We have a lot of ground to make up to normalise the role of women in rugby but when we do the benefits financially will be huge… it’s an investment and not a cost.”

The importance of creating role models and leaders on and off the field were cited as targets moving forward, as well as ensuring that the focus is not just on the elite level of the game after a hugely-successful Olympic Games debut for sevens and the opportunity Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 in Ireland will present, but also trickles down to the grass-roots level and clubs to provide the foundations for future growth. 

Plenary 4: Breaking new markets - delivering and sustaining a truly global and inclusive game

A lively debate on how rugby embraces its position as a truly global sport ended the day’s proceedings, with World Rugby Chief Executive Brett Gosper, Doug Schoninger, CEO PRO Rugby and Mark Waller, Executive Vice-President of International, NFL, taking to the stage.

Comparing the diffrent strategies for taking the game into new areas, Gosper said: "I think we had the debate today which was a debate about whether it is about participation numbers, whether it is about fan bases which we now measure with World Rugby's research, or is it about your impact on social media?

"All of these things contribute, I think each of those entities where the NFL is on a very broadcast numbers strategy, ourselves who are probably skewed more at the participation end of the sport, there is no one way.

"For us, we certainly like to see the growth in participants throughout our member unions but we also like to see the growth in the fanbase which we have seen grow quite considerably after the last Rugby World Cup in 2015 and after the Olympics. That growth obviously leads to higher broadcast or viewer figures and it leads to commercialisation so they are linked together in some way."

The pace of ConfEx does not let up on Tuesday, with a number of important topics being discussed, including corruption in sport, respect for referees, reducing injury risk, performance management and marketing/sponsorship in rugby. A number of big names in the game will be offering their views including World Rugby Vice-Chairman Agustin Pichot, Rugby World Cup 2015 final referee Nigel Owens and the Chairman of the International Cricket Council's Anti-Corruption Unit Ronnie Flanagan.

More details about ConfEx 2016, including a full schedule for day two on Tuesday, can be found here.