Two Rugby World Cup final referees were among the panellists on day two as the World Rugby Conference and Exhibition continued at the Hilton London Metropole with a number of keenly debated plenary sessions.

Plenary 1: Protecting sport from corruption

‘Get you house in order, don’t think it can’t happen to you,’ was the recurring theme of the opening panel session, with input from Karl Bennison, Chief of Enforcement, Nevada Gaming Control Board, Ronnie Flanagan, Chairman of the International Cricket Council Anti-Corruption Unit, Simon Greenberg, the Head of Dow Jones Sport, and Global Head of Rights, News Corporation, and Matt Slater, Chief Sports Reporter, Press Association.

Rugby has been relatively untouched by corruption compared to other frontline sports, and while Greenberg praised the sport’s proactive approach to this ongoing threat, he pointed out that there was no room for complacency.

“I think there has been a sea-change, a big sea-change, in the view on corruption in sport brought around mainly by the FIFA and IFF crises - that being the abuse and corruption of sports marketing rights, the bidding process and so forth where the amount of money of involved are far, far higher than individuals betting or match-fixing," he said.

“Rugby World Cup, for example, is, some people will agree or disagree, the third biggest sporting event in the world after the Olympics and the (football) World Cup and therefore the amount of money there and the potential for abuse (institutionalised or organisational corruption) is extremely high. So, from my perspective, that’s where the biggest threat lies to rugby.”

Flanagan added: “These corrupters do not confine themselves to one sport, they will involve themselves in any game where they can make money.”

Flanagan spoke about the reputational and commercial damage that corruption can cause. Referring to the spot-fixing, no-ball scandal of six years ago, he said: “Straight away the chief executive of the International Cricket Council was receiving letters from major sponsors including major TV rights holders of the game saying that if the game was not straight they were out of there. If you don’t have integrity on the field of play it reverberates right back to those putting money into the sport.”

A question from the floor raised concerns that it took investigative journalists to uncover corruption rather than in-house policing. “Sport is at a crossroads: Change or be changed,” said Slater. “I do think rugby has learnt a lot of the lessons with what it has seen in other sports, and what it has done, thus far, is a very good job. Sport can still self-regulate. Better governing structures and better management of those structures would have prevented a lot of these situations.”

Plenary 2: Image of the game: Respect for match officials in rugby – a tradition worth maintaining

Respect between players and match officials is a fundamental value of rugby, and one that is increasingly under pressure due to societal changes, the levels of television coverage and technology and the scrutiny that brings.

“With everything that is around on social media, everything a match official does is scrutinised to the nth degree more so than any player on the field of play," said Alain Rolland, World Rugby's High Performance 15s Match Official Manager and RWC 2007 final referee. “People have got to understand with all the pressures that referees are under they are going to make mistakes just like players, you just hope that the mistake isn’t going to be the difference between a team winning and losing a game."

Owens added: “The pressure of the modern game is double what it was five or six years ago because, back then, you and the players didn’t know if you’d got a decision right and wrong until the Monday morning. Now you know within 20 seconds. Knowing you have made a mistake during a game brings an added pressure. You have to try and forget that and not let it affect the other decisions you’ve got to make for the rest of the game."

The values of rugby are vital for Owens. “The most fundamental value of rugby is respect. Respect from players to officials, officials to players, spectators in the stadium sitting next to each other… I think the boundaries are being pushed.

“Rugby, I think, upholds the tradition of respect better than any other sport in the world, and must continue to do that. All credit to World Rugby and all the unions, they do a lot of good work in dealing with the issues that are not acceptable.”

The session touched on many issues, including the pros and cons of post-match dialogue between officials and the media, on-field communication between players and officials, how more referees can be encouraged into the game and the importance of players as role models in creating a more positive mind-set towards the referee.

Before moderator Alex Payne blew for full-time, RWC 2015 final referee Owens ended with an example of the respect that everyone is striving to preserve.

“David Pocock came up to me after the (RWC 2015) final, shook me by the hand and said thanks for refereeing a great game. This guy had just lost out on the chance to win a World Cup and may never get the opportunity again yet he found the time to come and thank me. For me, that summed up what a great game rugby is.”

Presentation: Reducing injury risk in rugby

Player welfare is World Rugby’s number-one priority and reducing the injury risk in rugby was the focus of this discussion on the exhibition stage.

World Rugby's Chief Medical Officer Dr Martin Raftery explained the general philosophy of the sport’s governing body: “You can’t eliminate risk, you can minimise risk. Our goal is to make the sport as safe as possible.” 

Changes of law (for example, outlawing tip-tackles and the scrum engagement process) and equipment (for example, the compulsory wearing of mouth guards in New Zealand in the mid-90s reduced dental injury by 42 per cent) and a tougher judicial process have helped drive rugby towards its goal of being a safer sport.

“Actions that people may have got away with on the field are no longer tolerated and acceptable in the game,” said Ken Quarrie, Senior Scientist for New Zealand Rugby. “The focus World Rugby has put on it has been outstanding. The head injury assessment process has changed the way that the injury is seen and managed and as part of that we have seen a rapid increase in the reported rate."

Echoing that message, International Rugby Players’ Association's Member Services representative Josh Blackie spoke about the increased awareness of concussion among players. “There is no doubt there has been a cultural change in the way concussion is managed and the way people perceive it.”

Plenary 3: Performance management – a data driven approach

Sports scientists and performance analysts are fast becoming a crucial component of any team structure, where an evidence-based approach to performance is now the norm... but how far can technology go to help rugby?

Karl Hogan, Global Head of League and Data Partnerships, spoke about ‘wearables’ (technology worn by the players) and how the data captured by them – such as metres made and carries – help tell “the invisible story of the game,” and thus enhance the audience engagement.

The technology behind data capture and the complexities behind it were explained in real terms by the panel, which also included Paul Neilson, Head of Performance Lab at STATS, and Stephen Smith, CEO and Founder Kitman Labs, while the importance of translating everything captured in a user-friendly manner was also stressed.

“We are dealing with huge amounts of data and you can get lost with it sometimes. There is an art to how you engage with your stakeholders. The skill is taking a complex subject and delivering it where it is simple and can inform decision-making,” said Neilson. “Turning science into English is really, really important,” added Smith, who highlighted the dangers of how data can sometimes be misinterpreted, particularly around injuries.

While supportive of the advances made from when he first played the game, former England sevens captain Rob Vickerman brought the sensitive subject of data ownership into the equation and said it was important that the sport was not blinded by science.

“From a playing perspective, I would be doing my profession a disservice if I did not highlight the human and emotional element – that winning has so many components to it. You don’t always have to be the best team on paper.”

Presentation: The sponsorship pathway – are you sponsorship ready?

This workshop discussed how to effectively and simply engage with sponsors, and how national rugby unions and clubs at all levels can build lasting sponsor relationships.

Preparation and understanding what a client wants is key, says Fiona Taag, Global Sponsorship Manager, DHL Express. “I liken it to a job interview, these days you can’t go into a job interview and expect to get the job if you’re not fully prepared – you don’t know the company, you don’t the background, you don’t come ready with a bunch of questions and are willing to listen and understand what is going on. It is not so much the proposal; it is more the method and the approach you use that’ll intrigue me.”

Murray Barnett, World Rugby’s Head of Commercial, Broadcast and Marketing, said it was about winning hearts as well as minds. “I guess I see it slightly differently. It’s not like a job interview, it is more like a love affair, you have to build a relationship with someone, you have to pre-qualify them. You have got to decide if they’re attractive to you and you’re attractive to them and then you’ve got to buy them flowers… you’ve got to really get under the skin of what that brand wants.”

Plenary 4: Marketing the game  using insight to grow audiences and partnerships

Right person, right message, right time. That was one of the key messages as ConfEx 2016 closed with a discussion on how best to maximise the “treasure trove” of data generated by audiences while they interact with the teams and the stars they follow.

“In our experience the world has changed completely over the genesis of our businesses," said Matt Rogan, Chairman of Two Circles. "Broad brush the average Premiership rugby team we are fortunate enough to work with already holds data on fans, supporters, customers call them what you like, in about 15-20 different places. So, they have the treasure trove of information and the key is the art of the integration. The single biggest change in the sports industry generally over the course of the last 12-18 months has been how to economically integrate all the digital data sets that exist in the world into that picture."

Chief Executive of InCrowd Sports Aiden Cooney said: “I still think we are very much at the beginning of the journey. Sport is all about the connection between the fan and the team and the emotion. A big part of the value in broadcasting sponsorship is the emotional connection and therefore what we are doing is really trying to understand the behaviour and how fans are engaging with the sport.”

The development of apps help keep a 24-7 connection to supporters. “Our view of the app is that it is an essential part of the commercial inventory for a rights-holder. Very few brands are just interested in above the line relationships,” said Cooney.

Discussing participation, Rogan said there is “a moral responsibility” for governing bodies to directly engage with the people who play their sport. “From that engagement comes an ability to understand and influence.”