Exclusive: Rugby World Cup chiefs target United States and China as future hosts

Japan's wing Kotaro Matsushima waves the Japanese national flag as the team celebrate their victory in the Pool B match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between South Africa and Japan
Japan hosting the World Cup later this year is the first step in trying to transform rugby into a global sport Credit: AFP

This year’s World Cup in Japan is being used as a catalyst for non-traditional rugby nations to stage the event, with the United States and China both earmarked as possible future hosts.

Speaking to Telegraph Sport to mark 100 days until the tournament kicks off for the first time outside a tier-one nation, Alan Gilpin, the head of Rugby World Cup, revealed that this autumn’s competition would be one of the first significant steps in trying to transform rugby into a global sport.

After the 2023 World Cup in France, the 2027 tournament is likely to be staged in a “newer territory”. Telegraph Sport understands that the US is one of the favourites, with China, Argentina and Brazil under consideration for a later tournament.

“The ambition for future World Cups is to look at new markets,” Gilpin said. “With France 2023, that is an established rugby market; it will be a sensational World Cup. Then it is about what comes after and the ambition must be to continue to use the Rugby World Cup to reach new audiences. Whether that is North America, South America, back into Asia or Asia Pacific, we are just starting to work on the strategy with that in mind for the 2027 and 2031 World Cups.

“When you talk about creating legacy from an event, you have to think right from the start. Japan won the right to host this Rugby World Cup with legacy in mind. In taking the World Cup there, it was always the intention to use it as a catalyst to grow the sport.”

As well as the showpiece tournament, Gilpin also believes the controversial Nations Championship – scheduled to launch in 2022 – will be another driver for growing the game globally. World Rugby hopes fixtures such as the US’s home games in that tournament will indicate whether there is sufficient enthusiasm to host a World Cup.

“The Nations Championship is the opportunity to start opening up new markets for international rugby, without waiting for those World Cups,” Gilpin said. 

“We have to create new pathways for the likes of the USA and Japan. We also want to create the same pathways for the likes of Brazil, Germany, Spain, Georgia. They need a pathway to the top of the international game, not just playing in World Cups every four years. That is our vision. We are trying to get the ­unions to buy in.”

Gilpin admits the building of the Nations Championship has been far from smooth, with the Six Nations unions voicing strong objections over broadcast deals. Infront Sports and Media, the backer of World Rugby’s proposals, increased its original offer of £5 billion to the 12 competing countries last month in an effort to secure agreement. Plans to exclude Japan and Fiji were also scrapped, with a final decision due possibly this month.

“With the Nations Championship, we are dealing with competing sets of stakeholders. Some, very understandably, want to protect their own interests, then there are others who are trying to grow,” Gilpin said. “There are lots of complications and challenges. There was never going to be a perfect model because we are working with existing competitions that means everybody has to compromise. Every day we are working through those complications.

“There are, of course, competing interests but actually everyone is going to benefit from the sport growing. That then opens up big new markets in terms of broadcast and other revenues. That is not just a pure financial and greed issue; it is how we create that value to reinvest in the sport. We are not trying to pull everyone down; we are trying to pull everyone up.”

Gilpin is confident that Japan will be a financially successful tournament, with 75 per cent of tickets already sold. There is also a bigger crowd capacity than the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, although part of the “financial hit” comes from investing in more manpower to get the host nations more familiar with the intricacies of rugby.

“The approach we have taken in Japan in terms of putting more people on the ground and being very hands on means our cost base has risen,” Gilpin said. “Our net profit will be slightly lower than England but higher than our original forecast. From a business perspective we are in great shape going into the tournament.”

The work being done by Gilpin and his colleagues in Japan is seen as a gateway into the Asian market, with India another target for expansion. As part of the legacy-building project for Japan 2019, which runs from Sept 20 to Nov 2, World Rugby also launched the Asia 1 million project, exposing children in China, India, Vietnam, Korea and Indonesia to the sport for the first time.

“The Asia 1 million project is shaping up to be our most successful legacy programme to date, and it could arguably be one of the most successful mass participation legacy programmes for any sport to date,” said Gilpin. “Getting boys and girls to touch a rugby ball for the first time is one thing, but creating a sustainable legacy is another.

“It is about how we work with the member unions of World Rugby and Asia Rugby and those territories to ensure there is the infrastructure in schools and clubs for those kids to carry on playing rugby long after the Rugby World Cup is finished in Japan.”