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'If we can’t get that right there must be something wrong with us'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Oisin Keniry/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Alan Gilpin stepped off the plane in Paris this week with a real spring in his walk. Just 100 days remain before the latest Rugby World Cup jamboree swings into action, host nation France taking on the All Blacks in their Stade de France lair. The portents are great: 2.5million tickets sold for the 48 matches across nine cities, stats that have the tournament poised to break the attendance record set eight years ago by England 2015.


The 50-year-old was just getting warmed up within the World Rugby organisation at that time when the All Blacks were beating the Wallabies in the final at Twickenham.

Having spent nine years at IMG negotiating the commercial rights across three Rugby World Cups, it was 2014 when Gilpin officially joined the rugby federation, going on to become its chief operating officer (COO) and Rugby World Cup MD in 2016 and then CEO in 2020 following the departure to NFL of Brett Gosper.

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In public, rugby fans would recognise him as the official who took the lead in managing the delicate situation of the typhoon that cost the 2019 tournament in Japan three matches. That crisis, though, couldn’t compare to the world-shutting pandemic that followed.

That should have been a disaster for the planning of the 2023 finals in France. And yet, there was Gilpin with a big smile on his face in recent days, pressing the flesh with all and sundry in the comforting knowledge that things have apparently never looked so good 100 days out from the quadrennial festival.


What gives? Ironically, what assisted long-term was the World Rugby decision in November 2017 to hand France the hosting rights. That process was much criticised, South Africa and Ireland dissatisfied with how it all played out in the basement of a plush Kensington hotel in London. Its legacy was that World Rugby would never again use that particular process for anointing its World Cup bid winners.

However, council’s decision to vote for the French was unwittingly proven excellent when it came to ensuring the pandemic didn’t slam the brakes on preparing for the upcoming finals.


Asked by RugbyPass about why World Rugby are in such rude health 100 days out from France 2023 despite the pandemic, Gilpin enthused: “Great question. Going back to 2017 when we were at the point of selecting the host for 2023, we were in a contest between France, Ireland and South Africa and we were very blessed at that point to have three potential hosts who we knew could deliver an outstanding tournament.

“Great infrastructure, great kind of rugby strongholds. You come through that and France were awarded the hosting rights. Part of the answer to your question is we did great early work with France, so it is a tribute to the organising committee.

“They put a lot of great work in place in 2018 and 2019 before the pandemic hit – and then we have been lucky because France is a fantastic hosting nation whether you are looking at rugby in the past, the Euros (in football), preparing for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

“It is a great nation from a sporting and hosting perspective. Whether you are dealing with the government, whether you are dealing with the French organsing committee who have been great partners for us, whether you are dealing with host cities and venues, we are dealing with people who have got a hell of a lot of experience of putting on big events and that really helps when you are in those challenging circumstances you have with covid.


“Our confidence in them and their confidence in their ability in being able to deliver has been really strong throughout and we are fortunate that even in those very difficult times in 2020, 2021, 2023 seemed like far enough away that we were confident that we would be in a position to get to where we are now which is 100 days out from a fantastic tournament. Yes, it’s a great question because it has been a preparation period like no other.”

The off-field business of rugby isn’t the only aspect that is nicely approaching the crest of a wave in a timely fashion. Test rugby – and the sport in general – was a tough spectacle during the pandemic. Behind closed doors matches didn’t generate an inspired atmosphere and the sport became dominated by defence.


Now, though, attack is wielding the upper hand with stadiums packed to the rafters and it bodes well for some grippingly creative rugby to unfold across the seven weeks of the tournament in France. Gilpin, no more than the rest of the rugby world, is relishing the potential drama that could materialise.

“It’s interesting, and we have seen it across a number of sports: the on-field performance was challenging in the pandemic at a time when you haven’t got crowds there inspiring and creating that great stage, but rugby globally at every level has come roaring back,” reckoned the World Rugby CEO.

“We are seeing some of the best, most entertaining, compelling rugby we have seen for a very long time and we would like to think we have helped enable that as a sport by being braver, being more innovative, spending more time looking at and talking about the shape of the game and getting every part of the rugby ecosystem across coaches, players, medics, lawmakers together and try and innovate.

“Some of the stuff we are doing around the foul play review bunker for TMOs is part of that and again, how do we speed the game up, how do we make sure we have got consistency in decision making?

“We are trialling more and evolving more and evolving more quickly than ever before. That is not all going to be at the World Cup this year, but the direction of travel really supports the game becoming faster, more compelling, more ball in play and more enjoyable to watch and play hopefully.”


With demand for France 2023 tickets unprecedented, and with the women’s and sevens games set to accelerate appeal in the next year, is rugby is in a terrific spot to fire up the imagination, not just of the avids who follow every kick and pass but of people who haven’t come across the sport before?

“Absolutely,” replied Gilpin. “We have got this incredible opportunity as a sport in the next 12 to 15 months. I can’t overemphasise it enough, France will be an amazing host nation, with great excitement, shaping up to be a brilliant tournament.

“We are launching WXV in the women’s game, a chance to build on an exceptional, really special women’s rugby World Cup in New Zealand last year. WXV will be about building the competitiveness of the women’s game. We are reimagining, relaunching our World Sevens Series later in the year – it’s a quiet back half of the year for us!

“And then we play forward not only into the Olympic Games next year in Paris with the rugby sevens which will again be part of a brilliant Olympics and again because of France and Paris as a host we will have spectacular crowds, see the best of sevens, but we are also already incredibly excited about the World Cup 2025 in England and the moment that will give us in this journey in the women’s game.

“So, we have got a great opportunity with the sport. With the sport growing and with this enthusiasm around the sport the way it is being played, if we can’t get that right on this big stage there must be something wrong with us.”


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