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Omar Hassanein: 'We can’t just dump them at any point in their lives'

By Liam Heagney
Omar Hassanein, the International Rugby Players Association CEO, at St Martin-in-the-Fields (Photo by John Phillips/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Trafalgar Square was a haven for football last Thursday morning with a bustling fan village having just opened ahead of the UEFA Champions League final between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Just a few steps away, some titans from another sport had assembled.

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Jonny Wilkinson, George Gregan, Conrad Smith and Rachael Burford – all Rugby World Cup winners – were in the basement at St-Martin-in-the-Fields to help promote the launch of the Global Rugby Players Foundation.

Census Johnston and Kristine Sommer were also present, with Dan Carter dialling in virtually from his home in Auckland to provide some additional oomph to proceedings which were about getting the important message out that this new charity is looking to ensure players have a healthy and fulfilling life when they step away from the sport after retiring.

In attendance as well were Alan Gilpin, the World Rugby CEO since 2020, and Omar Hassanein, who has been at the helm of the International Rugby Players’ Association since 2017.

When the formalities ended, the pair sat down with RugbyPass for an exclusive 12-minute Q&A session.

Up for discussion was the new foundation, the relationship between Gilpin and Hassanein’s respective organisations, the negative conversation surrounding rugby, and the hot topic 20-minute red card that will be in use at this year’s WXV, Pacific Nations Cup, and U20 Championship and Trophy. Here is how the conversation unfolded:

How important is this new Global Rugby Players Foundation?

Omar Hassanein: It’s critical and it’s critical that we support players over their whole lives. Alan has said it a few times today, the support of players and making them feel part of the rugby family must be a forever thing. We can’t just dump them at any point in their lives, not just during their careers but in their lives.

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As a professional rugby player, you go through a very unique journey where you play from potentially age 18 to age 32 or something like that if you’re lucky, or you retire abruptly and you have got to pick up the pieces when you are in your mid-20s or something like that. So it’s critically important that we offer that service and the support throughout.

We always talk about us being this close sport where there is a brotherhood and a sisterhood amongst players; we have got to be able to support that. It’s critical and we have got to be able to support it with the global governing body, World Rugby, national governing bodies, players associations all working together on a common objective and that is what this is about.

Are channels of communication much more open with World Rugby than when you started at International Rugby Players’ Association?

Hassanein: Ah look, there has been a very evident evolvement in the way we work with World Rugby as a global governing body. A lot of that has to do with Alan and credit must be given there. When you are going into these international forums, whether it is a Shape of the Game forum or a global season structure forum or any other, Conrad (Smith) and I are front row centre as far as the conversation goes. Everyone is acutely aware of the commitment that needs to exist for welfare matters.

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This foundation is just another evolvement of how we are working together to support player welfare matters. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything and the nature of our roles is we won’t agree on everything. It would be unhealthy if we did, we wouldn’t be fulfilling our roles. But the ability to get above that and actually work, it’s light years ahead of when I started seven years ago. Long may that continue to grow.

Gilpin: We talked about it a lot and when I came into the CEO role. One of the things we recognised and our board recognised is that at the centre of every conversation we have anywhere in the world about rugby is the players. That is true when we are talking about U8s at community level or we are talking about the World Cup final between the All Blacks and the Springboks. The players have to be at the centre of every discussion, every debate, every piece of research we do and every conversation we have.

We weren’t really as a sport set up to do that. Omar and the team helped us really drive that conversation, create a really good partnership. As Omar said, the really important thing is that it doesn’t mean that we all sit in a room and pat each other on the back and agree on everything.

We challenge each other and from a players’ perspective, International Rugby Players challenge us and call us out when we are not doing a good enough job – and they should do. They have to because they represent players all around the world at every level of the game and again, those players need to be at the heart of every single conversation. Player load, one of the topical issues right now, is a good example. We have got to drive that piece of work together.

How important is it to get a positive message out there about the game as there is so much negativity about it?

Hassanein: We talked about this as a board. Alan said earlier and I said to a few of the guys last night over a beer, the second-best game I have ever watched was Ireland versus New Zealand in a World Cup quarter-final. The best game I watched was the next bloody night (France vs South Africa)! So the game is in great condition.

We need to be careful. We have got to be supporting welfare matters, we have got to be supporting the fight against player load and concussion and these matters, but we can’t have that as our headline message all the time or young kids aren’t going to want to play our sport.

Positive messaging is a huge thing and we should be talking about the values of the game and what it gives you. If someone said would you allow your boys to play, I’d say yeah, every day of the week because what I have taken out of this game has continued throughout my whole life and will continue to. So it’s important, the positive messaging.

I’m sure Alan has got something to say about the positive messaging as well. It’s on all of us to do that and not project an image that our game is in a dire way. We are dealing with challenges, how we manage the welfare of our athletes. It doesn’t mean the game is in a bad way.

Gilpin: Absolutely. Everyone has already said it. Look at the European Champions Cup final last Saturday. What a great game of rugby. We are about to be in Madrid this weekend for SVNS leading into a Paris Olympics for sevens which is going to be huge. A brilliant women’s World Cup in New Zealand a few years ago and we are going to have a brilliant women’s World Cup next year here in England. And, as Omar just mentioned, unbelievable matches in the men’s Rugby World Cup.

Whether you are watching rugby in Japan, watching rugby here in England, watching rugby in New Zealand, watching rugby in France, the club game is in great shape on-field, the quality of the product. We sometimes let some of the growing pains that rugby and professional sport is having off the field really overshadow our sport and that is a real shame.

We should absolutely talk more positively about how we have unbelievable athletes in the game. It’s an incredibly unique team sport, both in terms of the values of the game and the nature of the sport that we play. We have really got to shine a light better on that than we do, for sure.

July 1 is when the latest law changes to come into force. What have you made of the public reaction since World Rugby approved them at council in May?

Gilpin: It’s a healthy debate but again, to the early point, we have got to try and make sure that debate is played out positively. We have got a sport that is fantastic and what we are trying to do is recognise that can we make the game safer for the people that are playing it and can we make the spectacle better for the people that are watching it, whether they are in the stadium, through television, through other media.

It’s a balance and all that Shape of the Game discussion that involved every stakeholder in this sport was a really healthy discussion about how rugby is in an attention economy, it’s tougher than ever to get the attention of fans. We need bigger audiences and more fans, we need the players, the coaches, and the medics’ voices in that debate. We had all of that and came up with some ideas to trial some changes to laws.

You’re naturally going to get some people who react negatively to that and say, ‘Well, they are only making that change because they want to weaken my team’ or ‘They want to take that element out of the game’, or some traditionalists say, ‘Well, this isn’t going to be the sport that it was’.

People have to recognise what we are trying to do is evolve the game where it is appropriate to keep the absolute brilliant fabric of rugby but provide a game, where possible, it is safer to play, more enjoyable to play and a better spectacle.

The 20-minute red card will be a focus. What’s your take on it?

Gilpin: It’s part of that debate, it’s been part of that Shape of the Game debate for a long time and what we have driven for a number of years now and again International Rugby Players, Omar and Conrad in particular, were very involved in the use of sanction and ultimately the red card to try and drive changes in player behaviour which were ultimately about trying to drive the tackle lower.

What we have seen over the last number of years is that those concussion rates have fallen, the amount of high hits, if we call it that, have fallen, but yet we have still got these rugby incidents where there is head contact and we are obviously seeing sanction being used.

So you get to the point where you have to question, and we do the data and scientist of okay, if these are rugby incidents that are happening in a fraction of a second is it right to use the sanction? And if the sanction – and we have seen it in the women’s World Cup final and in the men’s World Cup final with red cards – is having a disproportionate impact on the quality of the game and the quality of the spectacle for fans, do we need to look at that in a slightly different way?

That is where the idea of replacing a player – that individual player who has either made a mistake or is reckless is still getting punished but the team, the fans and others maybe less so. And so like anything we have got to trial it, we have got to be brave enough to trial it and make sure we collect the data and understand what impacts it is having.

The most important thing to say is it is in no way a softening on player welfare being a priority. It is in no way a softening on the issue around concussion and head impact. What it is trying to do as a trial is recognise is sanction the right way.

Alongside the 20-minute red card, the really important piece of work will be reviewing the whole sanction framework around rugby and making sure that is not only fit for purpose but it’s understandable for players and fans.

Hassanein: We canvassed the views of players all around the world. You are going to mixed views on a lot of things but there is generally more of a support for the introduction of a trial to see how it goes.

As Alan says, we have got to be brave enough to trial it. We need to understand whether the sanctioning is actually having the desired effect on behavioural change because if that is not happening and we are discovering more and more there isn’t a direct link there, then we’re potentially jeopardising the spectacle to such a large degree or, as Alan says, to a disproportionate degree to the action that we are taking and it may not be reducing the incidence of high tackles and head injury.

Another thing that is really important to note is we need to distinguish between what may be an accident, a tackle that happens at high speed, and a malicious tackle that is done with intent. We’re finding that the statistics would show that the large, large majority of tackles fall into the former category.

There are very few incidences in our sport at the top level where a player is being told by a coach old-school style to go out and take that player out, it’s not happening. When players are getting red-carded, they are doing it because everything is happening at a frenetic pace, they just weren’t accurate enough and we are risking potentially the spectacle of the sport on account of that.

In regions like Australia where I live, the winter sports market is so saturated and so competitive that we can’t afford to give more and more reasons for sports like AFL and NRL to get ahead of us. We need to show that our sport is exciting, it’s high-paced. The Super Rugby this year has been incredible, and it’s almost taken a turn.

We were talking to Conrad about it yesterday and he was saying it’s the best, the most exciting season of Super Rugby we have ever had. We need to be conscious of the spectacle all of the time. You know, we exist to protect player rights and player welfare, but we also exist to help the game proper and so that would be what we would say on that matter.

It’s a really important thing that we must consider all aspects. Sometimes people are coming in and going if you do A, B will happen and we’re discovering that B is not always the consequence of A so let’s just be a lot more careful about the way we approach it and just keep researching and learning more and we will make the right decisions for our sport.

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