The cyclical nature of major sporting events lends itself to nostalgia. Where were you when Usain Bolt went faster than any before, when Jonny Wilkinson dropped for World Cup glory, when Simone Biles produced near perfection or when Tiger Woods added another chapter to a fairy tale we thought had finished. This list is limitless, each moment a marker in our own personal stories.
As a South African native, and on the eve of a Rugby World Cup, I find myself retracing the years to that iconic 1995 tournament. Like millions of others, I remember it vividly. The clarity of this memory owes itself to that Final embodying so much more than a rugby match. Nelson Mandela sensed this and, like the masterful leader that he was, he seized on it. As the full time whistle blew, the streets of Johannesburg, where I was watching, were alive with a rainbow nation sharing in a moment which transcended the sport.
Ten years from now, when people look back on Japan 2019, I wonder what they might say?
Closing the gap
The quarter final appearances for Samoa in 1991 and 1995, the memorable Fijian win over Wales in 2007 and the greatest upset in rugby history when Japan beat the Springboks in 2015 could only temporarily close the gap of the two-tier system – the division of traditional and developing rugby nations. The interest was there – a record-breaking 25 million viewers tuned in from Japan – but the infrastructure and funding was not.
This time, however, there is good reason to believe that the dawn will not be a false one.
Through the Japan Top League, the sport has a platform to build on the on-field success. In recent years, we have negotiated a number of deals for players, of International ilk, to join teams in Japan. What this movement allows is for Japanese fans to watch the likes of Dan Carter, a two-time World Cup winning All Black, and Matt Giteau, who won 100 caps for Australia, on a weekly basis, inspiring future generations to pick up a rugby ball instead of kicking a football.
A blossoming commercial landscape
Beyond the touchline, this is the most successful Rugby World Cup commercial program to date. It was a brave decision from World Rugby to breach its traditional strongholds but already it feels like a pioneering one.
There was a sense of unknown, even trepidation, as to how the Worldwide Partners might react. Would some brands’ interest wane? Quite the opposite has transpired. There has been more invested in this tournament than any before. These sponsors sensed the watershed moment for the sport and did not intend on missing out. This has pervaded from the global to the local, with Japanese businesses enthused by the product, creating valuable interest and investment from brands in the market.
The Japan 2019 commercial landscape is not only a pre-cursor to the impact this tournament can have but is also just reward for the foresight of World Rugby. It is indicative of a sporting product that is beginning to realise its potential, a trend reflected by the offers of significant investment from the likes of Infront and CVC Capital Partners.
The pinnacle of the sport
Amidst the sponsor engagement, global fanfare, cultural wonder and general sporting fever, it is easy to forget that the business that really counts is on the pitch itself. For the players and coaches, this is their Everest. A World Cup winners medal and you book a spot in your nations folklore, acquiring a marketing value which endures. Take Jonny Wilkinson as an example, the hero in Sydney 16 years ago and a Global Ambassador for two of our clients, Vitality and Land Rover, today. That is the value attached to winning this heralded trophy.
An open conversation
This tournament comes at a juncture for player well-being, both physical and mental. Two of our players, George North, the current Welsh star, and Sean Fitzpatrick, the former All Blacks legend, lent their support ahead of Japan to the excellent #MenOfMoreWords campaign. I think also of Gareth Thomas, the former Wales and British & Irish Lions captain, and the courage he’s shown in speaking openly about the challenges he’s faced. With World Mental Health Day falling during this year’s tournament this spotlight is only getting brighter. It is creating a climate now that will embolden sports men and women, from the armchair fan to the elite athlete, to lean on their network.
There is a focus also on the physical health of rugby players. The size and speed of Jonah Lomu was an oddity in 1995, but today his frame would be one of many. As the players are getting bigger so too are the collisions. The zero tolerance on head contact and the continuous trialing of new measures to protect player well-being is evidence of a rights holder that is prepared to change in order to sustain.
As with the sport I used to play, cricket, another key part of this evolution is developing formats that serve the interests of differing audiences. In 15s, Sevens and the intriguing RugbyX, the sport has an offering that can cater for a range of consumer palates. The diversity of which is growing exponentially with the sport, a trajectory which took a sharp upward turn in 2016 thanks to the success of Rugby Sevens return to the Summer Olympic Games after a 92-year hiatus.
What’s on the menu in Japan is a new frontier for the sport. Ten years from now, I hope that my memory is as vivid and its impact on the sporting landscape as marked as that unforgettable 1995 tournament. And I wouldn’t mind the same winner as well!
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