Diversity in Rugby – Legacy goals of grassroots play, regional rejuvenation

Written by BCCJ
April 26, 2019


Written by BCCJ
April 26, 2019

“Rugby is a growing, thriving, global sport because it is inclusive and fosters diversity at all levels,” Rob Abernethy told attendees of the BCCJ’s “Diversity in Rugby” luncheon in Tokyo, on March 26. The executive director of Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2019 was speaking at the second event of the Rugby Alliance, a coalition of eight Japan-based foreign chambers of commerce that was set up last year to help the RWC Organising Committee deliver a legacy.

As the longest global sporting event, at 44 days’ duration, and with 12 host cities spanning Hokkaido to Kyushu, a fundamental aspect of the legacy is the development of grassroots rugby across the country. Abernethy expressed hope of a positive reception because rugby “is a game for all shapes and sizes, genders, ages and abilities” thanks to its variety of formats, including tag, touch, wheelchair, sevens and fifteens.

D&I success stories

Work in Japan to bring rugby to all builds on global initiatives. Abernethy noted that rugby was the fastest-growing women’s team sport in 2018, with more women joining the sport than men. The female fan base also grew six times faster than that of the male fan base last year. 

Addressing attendees, Keiko Asami, World Rugby board member and former head coach of Japan Rugby Women’s Sevens Team, said that rugby has been developing rapidly in Asia, particularly among women, since the adoption of sevens as an Olympic sport in 2016.  

Worldwide, further work is underway to develop the women’s game by strengthening participation and competitions as well as promoting leadership on the field and at an organisational level. Since launching a growth plan in 2017, Abernethy shared that World Rugby has increased female membership of its Representative Council to 35%. Moreover, the RWC has partnered with the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation and International Gay Rugby.

Corporates such as long-term RWC partner DHL are also supporting diversity and inclusion efforts in the sport. DHL’s Rugby Delivered project invites enthusiasts of any rugby format to make a team and join a tournament to win tickets to the RWC 2019. Unlike a similar project run by DHL for football enthusiasts, which attracted mostly male players and conventional formats, Rugby Delivered to date has seen teams of women, wheelchair players, walking players. Formats have ranged from fives to thirteens.

Event panellist Fiona Taag, head of global sponsorship and Europe marketing communications at DHL said: “We have seen so many diverse communities getting together, but they all have similar feelings of community, of the rugby family and of pride at being able to play together the sport they love. That stands out among all sports we are involved in.”

Asami agreed that rugby teaches teamwork, noting that, through the sport, the Japan women’s team that she coached for the Rio 2016 Olympics had learned to accept not only their strengths and weaknesses but also those of their teammates.

Engaging communities in Japan

Schools across the country are recognising rugby’s potential to teach the values of solidarity, integrity, discipline and respect. Many have welcomed World Rugby’s Impact Beyond programme, which is running Rugby Induction Days at schools in host cities and beyond. To date, more than 460,000 children across the country have taken part. 

As the first official partner of Impact Beyond, Jaguar Land Rover is helping the programme make an impact. Efforts include working with Mastercard to bring mascots from regional communities and other countries to the RWC, to boost the international aspect of the tournament.

“Impact Beyond gives us an opportunity to bring something meaningful to communities—sustainability and internationalisation. It also helps engage kids in new sports, which my staff and I believe has a societal contribution,” Magnus Hansson, CEO of Jaguar Land Rover, told attendees.

Such initiatives also boost the sustainability of local groups for young people, such as Shibuya International Rugby Club, whose members, coaches and volunteers hail from around the globe. Though all coaching is done in English, the club is multilingual and multicultural, so it hopes to be a host club for young visitors to the RWC, according to panellist Koji Tokumasu, the club’s president.

Though thriving now, Tokumasu admitted that the club faced challenges when it was launched two years ago, as rugby was perceived as a very physical, even scary sport for children. As senior director of the Rugby World Cup 2019 Organising Committee and honorary president of Asia Rugby, he knew what to do and shared his approach with attendees.

“You have to open the door to introduce rugby to them step by step, with touch or tag rugby. Let them enjoy playing with the ball, have fun and love the game. Don’t put them under pressure [with physical contact] at the beginning,” he said.

World Rugby’s community efforts also extend across Asia through ChildFund Pass it Back, a programme designed to use rugby as a tool to teach life skills to children. With support from DHL, it is being implemented according to children’s local needs in disadvantaged communities in Laos, Vietnam and the Philippines. In Japan, teaching will focus on gender, safeguarding children in sport and equal opportunities for all, in alignment with the government’s work to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

According to DHL’s Taag, 50% of players and coaches in ChildFund Pass it Back are female, largely because the people in the countries involved have no preconceptions about the sport. This has prompted organisers to hope for further diversity in rugby.

International impact

The panellists agreed that the 400,000 international arrivals expected in Japan’s regions over the course of the RWC can build excitement about the sport and provide an economic boost to local businesses.

Akira Shimazu, CEO of the RWC Organising Committee, welcomed the important work of the Rugby Alliance, noting that it represents 10 of the 19 nations that will play in the tournament. He told attendees that 30% of fans buying RWC tickets are based overseas and most hail from countries represented by the alliance.  

Produced by Sterling Content for the BCCJ