World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont has hailed 2016 as a special and game-changing year for rugby that inspired record numbers of young people to get into rugby and anticipates continued record participation and fan growth in 2017 as he continues to implement key pillars of his mandate to strengthen the global game for the betterment of all. 

During a golden 2016, rugby sevens made a thrilling Olympic Games debut, while global participation increased from 7.73 million to just over eight million. A further 1.5 million boys and girls participated in Get Into Rugby programmes in more than 120 nations worldwide, a record number for the mass-participation programme.

Demonstrating the increasing appeal of the sport, research also suggests that the sport’s fan-base has grown by 50 million since Rugby World Cup 2015, led by Asia, South America and the USA, thanks to the continued appeal of key events such as the Olympic Games, Rugby World Cup and the men’s and women’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. 

Beaumont said: “2016 has been a special year for rugby with participation growing by a record eight per cent to more than eight million worldwide. What’s more, there are now more than 300 million rugby fans as the sport continues to capture the imagination and inspire the next generation of players and fans.

“On the field, the feats of our players have been an inspiration to millions. We enjoyed a game-changing Olympic Games, where our finest sevens players inspired a whole new generation of players and fans, with research showing that 16.83 million new fans were attracted to rugby in six key markets.

“Our competitions going from strength to strength, with our sevens players competing in record-breaking men’s and women’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and a raft of development and high-performance tournaments providing a pathway for the future stars of the game.

“Celebrating the people, events and moments that have shaped rugby’s history, we also opened our fully-interactive Hall of Fame in Rugby (UK) this year. Rightly, it provides a physical destination that connects the sport’s origins with the greats who have played such an inspirational role in rugby’s success story. It is free to visit and encourage everyone to put it on their ‘must visit’ list in 2017.”
Record growth has been guided by strong administration. Off the field, 2016 saw the implementation of dynamic and robust governance reforms, widening union representation on Council as Georgia, Romania and USA were welcomed, and promoting independence on the Executive Committee. World Rugby also announced an updated Strategic Plan, setting out ambitious new targets to guide rugby’s growth through to 2020 and beyond.

Beaumont added: “I would like to thank the global rugby family – players, fans, coaches, referees, administrators and volunteers – for their passion, commitment and playing a significant role in making 2016 such a special, memorable and successful year.”

The new year will bring new opportunities and challenges, but Beaumont is confident that the sport is perfectly placed to convert growth opportunities in emerging markets such as China, Brazil and Germany, while continuing to ensure the best-possible welfare standards for players at all levels.

Looking to 2017 Beaumont continued: “Women and girls represent 30 per cent of the total global playing base, including Get Into Rugby, and we are committed to converting the enormous opportunity that we have with Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 in Ireland, at a time when the sport is enjoying unprecedented global growth.

“Ireland 2017 promises to be the best-ever, with the draw throwing up some mouth-watering match-ups that will showcase the strength and quality of the game. In this crucial year, we are committed to prioritising investment to ensure that the sport is as accessible and inclusive as possible for women and girls at all levels.

“Anticipation and excitement is also growing ahead of Japan 2019, the first Rugby World Cup in Asia and a ground-breaking event for our sport. In 2017 we will build on the solid foundations that are in place, with all eyes on the pool draw in Japan in May and match schedule and ticketing announcements later in the year. Looking even further ahead, we will select the host for Rugby World Cup 2023 from an impressive list of candidates in November.

“As a former captain and manager, I am looking forward to the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. The tour is just one highlight in what promises to be an intriguing and exciting international match schedule that includes key qualifiers on the road to Rugby World Cup 2019.”

Driven by the strength of Rugby World Cup, the consolidated financial results for 2015 saw the highest turnover in World Rugby's history enabling record rugby investment. It is anticipated that the core direct investment in the sport will increase throughout the four-year cycle to 2020 with total investment anticipated at £245.8million, eclipsing the previous 2013-16 £201 million investment injection by 22 per cent. 

This record investment will support development and high performance programmes and enable World Rugby to continue delivering world-class training and education. It will also support the federation’s continued commitment to driving player-welfare best practice.

Beaumont added: “We will continue to protect players through leading player welfare programmes and remain committed to being a leader in the priority areas of injury-prevention and concussion. From 3 January two new categories of dangerous tackles will carry penalty offences to deter and eradicate high tackles. In line with our evidence-based approach, this law change has been informed by the largest-ever study identifying the most common situations leading to head injuries.”

Alongside player welfare, Beaumont’s vision for a strong, sustainable game focuses on enhancing global competition through the delivery of a collaborative global calendar that puts players and fans first; preserving integrity by fighting doping and promoting a clean playing field for all through strong investment in education initiatives like Keep Rugby Clean, and targeted testing initiatives, as well as safeguarding the sport from corruption through strong governance and leadership; and optimising commercial partnerships by unlocking the full potential of new and emerging markets.

He concluded: “All of this will be achieved by empowering and strengthening unions through continued strong investment in all levels of the games, from grassroots participation and the retention of players, to strong and vibrant unions driving greater competition at test level.  

“We will continue to work hard to ensure that the decisions that we make are for the betterment of the game at all levels across all nations. From player welfare to the global calendar, national team eligibility, development and investment strategies, I look forward to working in partnership with the entire global rugby community in what promises to be an exciting and important 2017 on and off the field.