KEIR RADNEDGE in LONDON —-  The world of rugby has never known a year like it; neither has World Rugby. Chairman Bill Beaumont underlined the power of the growth of the game around the planet in London today.

Beaumont, former England captain, was elected unopposed in May at the head of what was formerly known as the International Rugby Board in succession to Bernard Lapasset.

Bill Beaumont at the World Rugby Conference in London

The sport charged forward from a successful Rugby World Cup in England in September and October last year and on to the success of its return, via sevens, to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Beaumont, in his keynote address to the World Rugby Conference and Exhibition at the Hilton London Metropole, said: “We are at an exciting, important point in the game’s development. The sport has experienced a golden period of exceptional growth. This has been another very special year on and off the field.

Global footprint

“The sport is now played in 120 World Rugby national member unions while a further 60 unions are recognised within the sport’s family. Our global footprint continues to grow at a record pace. Our competitions are going from strength to strength.

“Now we have 8m players worldwide, a number doubled since rugby was voted on to the Olympic programme seven years ago . . . and women’s rugby represents 60pc of that total.”

Seven years have passed since the Copenhagen session at which the International Olympic Committee brought rugby union back into the Games family.

That recognition was central to rugby’s ability to grow in countries where Olympic access is the key to support through sports ministries and education programmes. Rugby now claims 3m fans around the world.

Beaumont insisted that Games participation had served the sport’s development twice over by capitalising also on its visibility through the unique entertainment of sevens.

He said: “We enjoyed a game-changing Olympic Games in Rio where our finest men and women sevens players became our sport’s first Olympians in 92 years. Australia’s gold medal achievement demonstrated the true strength of the women’s game.

“We brought a great deal to the Olympics and look forward hopefully to becoming a core event within the Olympic programme. It was a great event, thoroughly enjoyed by everybody.”

Positive perspectives

Beaumont praised the success of last year’s Rugby World Cup, looked forward positively to Japan in 2019 and, beyond that, to the decision between Ireland, South Africa and France as host for 2023.

However, he also sounded a note of caution, saying: “We cannot be complacent. It’s important we consider the future from playing, coaching,  marketing and participation perspectives.”

His vision as chairman was for “a strong sustainable game focused in key areas” such as protection of players through welfare programmes concerning injury prevention – including concussion – preserving the integrity of the game and fighting doping “to ensure a clean playing field for all.”

He concluded: “We have the tools, the people and the sport to meet all these challenges head on — and also convert these opportunities.”

World Rugby main awards:

Coach of the year: Steve Hansen (NZ)

Player of the year: Beauden Barrett (NZ)

Team of the Year: New Zealand  (All Blacks award collected by team captain Keiran Read)

Breakthrough Star of the Year:  Maro Itoje (England).

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