Now in his second term as World Rugby Chairman, Bill Beaumont has helped to define the landscape of global rugby since 2016.
But as a former England captain, Chairman of the Rugby Football Union and a proud father to Sale Sharks professional rugby player Josh, rugby has been an integral part of his life for over six decades.
From becoming a member of Fylde RUFC in 1969 – his four grandchildren have maintained the family tradition – Beaumont has been involved in the sport in many guises and has seen some momentous changes in that time.
While the introduction of Rugby World Cup in 1987 helped to broaden rugby’s appeal, it was the decision to end amateurism and reward players for their time and dedication that moved the game on immeasurably.
“In many ways, 1995 was an historic year for the sport with a transformational Rugby World Cup in South Africa and that Mandela moment,” said Beaumont.
“The decision by the then IRB for the game to go open, was just as big, right up there with the ‘95 World Cup and our return to the Olympics (in 2016) in terms of global impact.
“It was a decision that changed the sport. It was necessary and it paved the way for the sport’s phenomenal development and growth.
“The game has changed at a rapid pace over the last 25 years – probably grown at a rate greater than any other major sport,” he added.
“The unanimous vote of the whole IRB Council was required. We couldn’t have a single country not respecting the rules."— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) August 26, 2020
Today marks 25 years since Rugby Union turned professional, read the account of the meeting that decided the future of the game.https://t.co/A0e4n9h3Mt
“We’ve gone from 70 national unions in membership of World Rugby to 127 with Africa and Asia leading the growth charge.
“Player numbers have ballooned from less than a million to over nine million driven by young females in emerging rugby nations.
“Rugby’s fanbase is big and growing, it’s increased by more than 30 per cent to over 400 million since 2013, driven by men’s and women’s RWC success and the Olympics.”
Huge success story
The men’s Rugby World Cup is now the third biggest sporting event in the world and for the first time in its history was hosted in Asia in 2019.
Japan 2019 took the tournament to new heights and left a legacy that will benefit the sport for many years to come.
Meanwhile, the women’s Rugby World Cup, last staged in Ireland in 2017 and set to go again in New Zealand in 2021, continues to break new records on and off the field.
“The men’s and women’s Rugby World Cups have been a huge success story,” Beaumont commented.
“They are our global platform to showcase the best of the game and deliver great economic, sporting and social dividends for the sport.
“If 1995 was transformational, historic, then last year’s men’s Rugby World Cup in Japan was a game-changer, driving participation and interest growth in Asia.
“If you compare it to 1995, the viewing audience has grown from around 50-100 million to 2.04 billion with the broadcast and digital media revolution.
“Of course, to grow fanbases you need great events and stars, and we have plenty of them across the men’s and women’s 15s and sevens games, but the game, the product also needs to be relevant and attractive. This is why we have a law review process, we are always striving to make the game simpler, safer and more accessible for all.”
Beaumont led England to the Six Nations Grand Slam in 1980, and the game has constantly evolved since then.
However, the acceleration of change noticeably picked up post-1995 with players becoming fitter, faster, stronger and more skilful.
“The shape of the game has changed dramatically over the period,” acknowledged Beaumont.
“Ball-in-play time has increased from 27 minutes to almost 40 minutes, there are 10 fewer scrums per game than in 1995 and there are more tries. But we are continuing to make advances that aid simplicity and safety, such as the enforcement of law at the breakdown, the High Tackle Sanction Framework which is reducing concussion rates and the 50:22 concept, which has been trialled in Fiji and Australia.
“None of this growth would be possible without the army of passionate volunteers, trained educators and coaches who play such a critical role around the world. We have a workforce of almost 1,000 educators and trainers within our unions and are on course to complete more than 140,000 coaching, medical and law courses this year, which would be a record.”
Player welfare focus
Having won 41 international caps in the rough and tumble world of the second row for England and the British and Irish Lions, Beaumont speaks from experience when he talks about player welfare.
“The advance over the last 25 years that I am most passionate about is in the area of player welfare,” he said.
“Rugby is a physical sport, there is no denying that, but we are working tirelessly using research and experts to reduce injury rates, particularly concussion, where we are making important inroads, and we are committed to ensuring the best possible playing environment for players at all levels.”
Like any sport, rugby faces many challenges in the years ahead to maintain its status as a game for all while also reaching out and touching the lives of those not involved at present.
Explaining the sport’s future ambitions, Beaumont said: “Rugby must continue to be relevant to young people and therefore the sport needs to remain focused on making it as safe, simple, accessible and enjoyable to everyone.
“We must listen to and place players at the heart of the conversation and decisions and embrace new technology to drive evidence-based player welfare advances.
“We must convert the amazing opportunity of the future Rugby World Cup host selection process to deliver a 10-year hosting strategy that will enable the game to reach and inspire new audiences, new fans and participants.
“We need to continue to impress at the Olympics – the world’s biggest sporting stage – and enable these incredible men and women to inspire the next generation of rugby fans and players with their incredible skills.
“We need a robust and equitable international competition calendar that recognises the needs of the professional club game, the international game and delivers the platform for women’s 15s rugby to thrive alongside men’s competitions.
“Ultimately for our sport to grow, we need to break new markets, raise the level of competition across the game and take our events to new nations.”
The history behind the momentous decision in 1995 can be discovered at the World Rugby Hall of Fame in Rugby, England. Admission is free but advanced booking is essential. Please visit www.world.rugby/halloffame for more information.