Cape Town – New Zealand’s ongoing winning culture, including first-time retention of the World Cup this year, poses a threat to all other rugby brands on the planet.
So says SARU CEO Jurie Roux, in part two of a major RWC-themed interview with our chief writer Rob Houwing.
He also speaks of areas in the world that are ripe for serious rugby expansion.
Here is the second installment of the Sport24 interview with Roux ...
Clearly we are eyeing 2023, but there were also ripples a few months ago about RWC 2019; doubts creeping in about Japan’s hosting. Your view?
No, it’s very much (on). They have fulfilled all their obligations now, and are ticking all key boxes. World Rugby has appointed people who are permanently there, overseeing the build-up process. The Government and their rugby union have all come to the party. Funnily enough, everything happened a week after they beat us (at RWC 2015, in Brighton) ... everything suddenly fell fully into place in terms of both their Super Rugby team and 2019. A final decision has been taken by Council, so barring some unforeseen development in Japan, they will be delivering 2019. Recently they have upped the development of some stadiums, and so on. They seem to be on track. The biggest fear there is still that there will be less commercial value because of the time zones, etc. But four years is a long way away ... people are a little punch-drunk at present from the latest World Cup, and momentum will gradually start building as people get hungry for RWC again. You may see the same sort of crowds (in 2019) ... but as I said at this stage our forecast is still a little bit lower than for 2015.
Hypothetically, how ready would South Africa be immediately? We often get spoken of as an attractive late fallback option for major sports events if intended other host countries are labouring ...
Look, irrespective of any other reports you may have seen (around Japanese doubts), we still had to go through the exercise. We were pretty much intact in terms of ability to deliver on a very short-term notice, though. From a rugby infrastructure point of view, I think we are fine. Hotel and hospitality infrastructure ... more than capable. With transport we might have certain issues, though not too major. If given 24 months or something like that, we can turn it on, albeit with some risk involved ... give us six months and we might have major challenges. This country has an unbelievable ability to pull together and deliver something. We don’t need to build new stadiums; there are plenty of those. Don’t forget about our broadcasters ... SuperSport is one of the top ones in the world, if not the best. That’s a known fact, whether football, cricket or rugby.
Some of our older stadiums would need facelifts from a capacity, comfort and safety aspect, wouldn’t they? And there’d be crossover use of some of the under-used World Cup soccer ones?
Very much so. Luckily we’ve had a natural migration already to some of the (2010) stadiums in some areas – like the Pumas playing out of Nelspruit at Mbombela Stadium. We’ve also utilised the stadium in Johannesburg (Soccer City) a couple of times; if you need capacity of 90,000 for a final there would be no better place to do that. There would very much be a collaboration process between the local unions and the cities, in deciding best venues for matches. We are talking almost a decade down the line from here ... even some of those 2010 stadiums would be 13 or 14 years old by 2023. You’ll have to keep an eye on their condition, but we do have an abundance of stadiums to pick from.
At the latest RWC they spread out fixtures to some pretty unheralded areas and venues like Exeter and Milton Keynes. Is that something you would like to see occur at a possible future SA World Cup in 2023? Could it help pep up rugby generally at Boland or Griquas, for instance?
Probably the biggest success of this World Cup was their ticketing strategy and stadium selection. They were very good at it. So you would have to be very careful not to (give) a match that you know will not sell 15,000 or 20,000 tickets to a 40,000-seater venue. So surely some of the smaller grounds and outer venues will get an opportunity. You would definitely want to spread some games, but you must also factor in big costs in actually getting a venue ready. So it will be both a strategic and commercial decision.
This was a “between seasons” RWC in the UK ... would it be another winter World Cup, like 1995, if South Africa got it for 2023?
In actual fact there is still that massive, ongoing debate surrounding a world rugby calendar; trying to dig a line. But we keep running into obstacles: the north doesn’t want to move the Six Nations and we’re a little reluctant on Rugby Championship, etc. You’ve also got the power of the clubs north of the equator; they have lots of (clout) in both the UK and France. There are some tussles, and obstacles, but as things stand everyone seems pretty much focused on the September/October window (for World Cups). In South Africa we would obviously have to take into consideration heat at that time of year, but you can play around with that in terms of where and (at what times of day) you play your matches. The next RWC will be a September/October event, so I don’t see that changing a lot ... unless we do get a major shift in the world calendar.
Which areas of the world do you think are untapped markets, ripe for real rugby expansion?
It’s the Americas. Asia has been there for a long, long time already. If I had to split it up, I think from a further development and enhancement point of view, the big SANZAAR powers, with Argentina now on board, could do a lot of work in the Pacific. Commercially it’s challenging, very tough ... in terms of (widespread) populations and infrastructure. But if we could somehow help Tonga, Samoa and Fiji even more, to get them proper structures, and getting them an opportunity to play in a major competition somewhere on a regular basis, they will make a massive difference to global rugby. As for Asia, we’re doing what we can already, and they (Japan) are in Super Rugby now. But the Americas is the untapped market ... Mexico, Brazil, all those countries. The growth in both North and South America is massive. Especially North America: it’s the sleeping giant, between Canada and the USA. If they get their leagues going, and we’re playing there more regularly, then rugby will truly be in a different market. Still, we are competing against some major sports there, and remember their major sports model – maybe people don’t always think about it, but all of their established big sports are above the shoulder. Baseball is above the shoulder ... you hit above the shoulder and throw above the shoulder. Basketball is above the shoulder, so is NFL, lacrosse. It is a huge cultural change for somebody, suddenly passing a rugby ball from hip to hip! But the Americas is definitely an area for great growth potential in our game and World Rugby is spending a lot of money in those countries. And hopefully with our new model we will play more and more rugby against Tier Two countries ... Japan, Romania, Georgia and so on. The minnows are disappearing, they are (shedding that status); we saw that at RWC 2015.
The All Black brand seemed unusually powerful, more ever-present than before to me on my travels at RWC 2015. Does it pose a threat to the health of the Springbok brand, the Wallaby brand and others?
It poses a threat to all other rugby brands in the world. They have been very clever: in the way they have been marketing, and in playing all over the world. They take it everywhere. They were assisted by their sponsor, AIG, sitting in New York and having offices all over America. They have utilised that. But it is a simple fact of the sporting world that success is (all-important) and people support winning brands ... Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City, Barcelona, Real Madrid. There is suddenly a Chelsea fan base in Cape Town now that you didn’t see a few years ago, when they were nowhere. They get money, they start winning tournaments, and look what happens. That’s what the All Blacks are ... and have been for the last few years. We need to take what we can, the lessons from them, even if we are not New Zealand, we are South Africa. We operate differently and play differently, but must still bank lessons from any successful sports brand.
Should the Springboks be fishing in any different, perhaps more distant ponds?
I’ll say this: watch this space. We are drawing up quite significant changes in our commercial planning going forward, which will include that. We do have a foothold in Europe and sell a lot of merchandise there. We need to pick that up, not only to the scores of expats in the UK, but in the rest of the world too. You need to change the way you do things for it to catch on ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing