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An Interview with… World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper

An Interview with… World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper

Written by Tracey Duke, Photography Pip Andersen

Brett Gosper is the epitome of charm and elegance; respectful, distinguished and with the air of a man who knows his standing in life.

With a marketing career spanning over 30 years, he also knows a thing or two about product placement and branding; on a global scale. Pip & I caught up with the man at the helm of World Rugby, in Wimbledon’s Cannizaro House Hotel, to talk cutting edge innovation, sliding doors, and good old-fashioned values. 

Brett, thank you so much for taking time out for me today. Our paths missed crossing on more than one occasion during RWC2015, so it’s great to finally meet now. Let’s kick this piece off by talking about the rugby side of things and how rugby, in so many ways, translates itself into everyday life. For me, one of the things that originally attracted me to the game, way back when the Underwoods were in their prime, was those values. 

I certainly think that for people inside the game, or very close to it, the values are a huge attraction to the sport. When you talk about marketing your game, a lot of people think you should market it on the physical aspect of the game. That aspect of the game of rugby is a very obvious one, but what people outside of the rugby church are less aware of, but when they do discover get more drawn to it, are its values.

I’m from a marketing background so for World Rugby, we looked to clearly position the sport; We eventually settled on the values as it was important for a brand to answer the question: What does brand rugby stand for?

 However, what we tried to do was to make sure that we clarified and refined what we meant by the values; building it around the notion that rugby, more so than other sports, builds character. It builds, develops and forges character. 

It’s a great benefit for parents to know that, whilst their children can be taking the odd knock and no it’s not always easy, rugby is also something which is equipping young players with life skills. Character is a valuable intangible; it’s not something you simply learn at school; it is learnt in life and in the kind of environment that rugby can provide. 

Character is the best shorthand to convey, more precisely, what we mean when we lay out and add up rugby’s values. 

Integrity. Passion. Solidarity. Discipline. Respect.

I know, as a parent myself, that it’s great to see your kids going to school and getting the academic results and everything else, but it’s those life & yes, social skills that are sometimes lacking. I think that the game is invaluable to children on so many levels. 

Exactly. It socialises; like all sport does. Probably where it’s a bit unique, is that in a rugby team everyone is very different; shapes, sizes, attitude, mindset. They will all bring something different to the party and will, together, do something which is a bit more interesting; a bit more effective. You actually don’t usually learn that in life, until you almost get into the corporate area. In rugby however, you learn that very quickly and it’s great.  

Most of the time, in society, you come together with people who aren’t very much like you but who bring a skill, that you haven’t got, to the table and vice versa; then you create things, do things and make things happen. Rugby is very much about that.

For sure, which brings me to ask a little more about your marketing background. In the last few years, we’ve seen the introduction of World Rugby as the face of the sport, rather than the IRB. Were there any challenges that you found during that process, or was it something that people naturally went with? 

The International Rugby Board was a brand that tended to signify and prioritize the leaders of the sport, rather than the sport itself. The IRB was also unknown to the non rugby audience we were trying to convert. Considering it was established in 1886 and is such a traditional institution, there were a lot fewer challenges than I thought there would be. 

At the end of the day, it was all about explaining, and demonstrating to them that creating World Rugby wasn’t a risk. It was about stressing that member unions had been missing out on an opportunity to grow the game and to reach more people. 

World Rugby should be the voice of the sport; representing the interests of men and women players, clubs, schools, supporters, fans …all those who are attached to and love the game. It strives to be more than a brand; World Rugby is really a movement, as opposed to the IRB brand which risked being perceived as a clique of detached administrators making decisions.  

That makes sense. So let’s now move on to talking about Brett Gosper; CEO of World Rugby. Tell me a little about yourself and how you came to hold the position. How did it all begin?

So I’m actually from a place that knew little about rugby; I’m from Melbourne, the home of Aussie Rules. By age 20, I’d twice been a final Wallaby trialist and had represented Australia at under 21 level. However, I’d missed out on Wallaby selection which, at 19/20, was a very tough thing to come to terms with. At that age you think you’re getting on; you’re thinking ‘look if I haven’t made it twice by 20, I’m probably never going to make it’. In the amateur era in Australia, you probably wouldn’t have played much beyond 25; not that many did.

I remember thinking that I needed a new adventure, a new challenge and that, essentially, is how I ended up in France.

At 21, I was recruited by Racing in Paris to play one season there. Whilst those were the days of amateur rugby, France was never entirely amateur; we were well looked after at Racing, but you were expected to have a day job.  

At the time, I was a graduate trainee at an international advertising agency, and I was allowed to divide my time up between the two.

In my mind, I was playing for Racing to get fit; to make a bid for the next season to play for Australia. But what was meant to be one season turned out to be eight or nine; I never actually returned to Australia.  

So you’re training hard to play for your country and that doesn’t work out. That’s tough. How do you deal with that?

At the time, it was really, really disappointing, but when I arrived in France that disappointment was replaced by the discovery of a completely different adventure. I got to play until I was thirty, at very high-level club rugby, with all of the wonderful atmosphere of the full French stadia. In those days there were very few foreigners, in fact, I think I was the first Australian to play in the top division in France.

So that in itself was a challenge!

It was challenging culturally and at the same time I was learning French, working full time during the day and then training every night. Then, on weekends, we would travel by plane or rail and play somewhere in the south of France.  

So I was a bit of a pioneer as far as foreign players in France were concerned. Now you’re probably more of a rarity if you’re a French player on a French club team! 

Obviously, things are different for you now but what about those young, reckless, heady days of your early 20’s; was there ever a time when you got things wrong, messed up?  

 Lots of times, but nothing major; I don’t feel that I’ve ever made any major errors. If I did, or do, make mistakes, I move on pretty quickly. We all make mistakes; rugby teaches you that. Sport teaches you that if you dwell on the mistakes, if you get obsessed with them, then the rest of your game is not going to be pretty. I think that in life, it’s the same.

The game, whether that’s rugby or life, is mainly played in the mind. If you’ve made an error, unless you can rectify it actively, and that’s rare, what you’ve got to do is re-start from a new place, put it behind you and move onto the next thing.

Great, wise, advice! And what about turning points; sliding door moments? Can you pinpoint yours?

My ‘sliding doors’ moment was definitely not being selected to play for Australia. My life would have gone in a completely different direction if I had been. I’d probably have been selected, gone on tour, come back, settled down and lived happily ever after in Australia. But my sliding door moment actually took me to Paris and changed my entire life. Everything that I’ve done in my life, since, I can trace back to that moment.

So whilst it was devastating at the time, it did all work out for the best and eventually made sense.

It began to make sense as I got into the French adventure a little more. I didn’t think like that at the time; I was definitely only going to France for six months and then coming back. However, it was about five months in, when I knew I was heading back in a month, that I panicked. I didn’t want to go back so I made sure that I lined up a position with the agency and did a deal with them. I said ‘look I’m a graduate trainee from your agency Australia; I can work for you for free for six months and, if at the end of it if you want to keep me you can keep me; if not I’m fine’. I could do that because I was being supported financially by the rugby club; not many people could have done that. But at the end of six months, the agency kept me and I stayed there for six or seven years. It all worked out well. 

Was that an intuitive decision and, if so, how far would you say that intuition goes towards making your calls?

I think then I tended to be very intuitive, but then rationalise it and put all the logic behind what my gut had been telling me or where my emotions were taking me. I convinced myself that it was right to go to France to get fit and then play in the off-season in Australia, but I also wanted to go overseas. I wanted to play in France and I wanted that experience. So probably I post-rationalised it to have been good for my rugby career; it wasn’t in the way I wanted it to be, but it was for other reasons.

And when did you eventually stop playing?

I stopped at around 30; it was tough, although it was very different to what the professional player of today has to deal with. 

Dealing with not being one of the key players on the team anymore; seeing the writing on the wall and spending a bit more time on the bench than you had previously, wasn’t ever easy. The reality, at 30, was that I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be anymore and I knew it was all coming to an end. And yes, I did feel less relevant, less important and wondered how I was going to come to terms with it; even then, when my business career was going quite well. So psychologically, it’s a tough old thing for players to deal with, especially today. 

It’s a subject that comes up so often; Ollie Phillips was talking about it in his piece and I know a few Chiefs who have just made that transition. 

It is tough and also when you’re earning a lot of money, you’re thinking you’re going to be earning a lot of money forever. So when you’re 20 and you’re earning upwards from £200k a year and someone is saying ‘look, you really need to be looking at your career after the game’ and they’re saying ‘what are you talking about? I’m doing well, I’ve got the sponsors car, the money…’ It’s a difficult one and all too often they have to take a huge hit financially, going from being kings of the jungle to being low on some corporate ladder.

Very few of them end up in front of the camera with lucrative media deals. The few legends do. If you have marked your era as a player, you’re laughing.  

That said, some people will finish and say, do you know what, that’s it, I’ve had enough. I wasn’t a professional rugby player like they are today, but I stopped at 30 and never played another game. 

Is that when you made the move to the UK? 

I actually moved at 34 to London, where I ran a top advertising agency. I wasn’t connected to any rugby club in London, I didn’t even watch rugby on TV, except the Six Nations & World Cup maybe. It wasn’t that I was rejecting rugby, I’d just moved out of that phase. 

It wasn’t until 20 years later that I got tapped on the shoulder for this job. 

Some people do it the other way; clinging on in some way to the rugby environment and that’s almost as sad.

Rugby’s certainly, a great environment to work in. I loved my time and am still very much connected.

It’s a great environment because people like to help each other. There’s a feeling that it’s a challenger sport, but at the same time, there’s a feeling that it’s a sport with huge momentum; being a challenger sport though there’s a complicity that people have with each other. In some countries it’s more marked than others. Funnily enough, it’s in the countries where rugby is least developed that they’re most passionate. It’s a religion in some countries. 

Ok Brett, so jumping forward; Japan RWC2019 is on the horizon with just two years to go. It was a bit touch and go for a while as to whether they’d be ready on time.

For sure!  Japan hasn’t had a lot of experience in running events of this size since FIFA World Cup 2002. There have been some good aspects but there have been some challenges too, especially given that Tokyo has an Olympics the year after. They and we are getting there though. There have been times when we’ve felt they’ve been behind track, but then they’ve put in a huge effort and got themselves back into the game. RWC2019 is going to be very different to World Cups before, but they’re on track and I think it’ll be a great World Cup because of its difference.

So let’s wrap things up with a little technology. Are you able, at this stage, to hint on any new innovations that will be brought in for RWC2019?

The essential thing with Japan was always getting their technology up to speed, in the Stadia they provided. Some of the stadiums we’re dealing with weren’t up to date; that was one of the big issues. The two stadiums that are going to be used for the Olympics the following year were, but we have twelve in total. The other ten lacked fiber optic connectivity; which is quite expensive, lacked the floodlights we wanted and lacked back up power; all these issues have now been addressed though and we’re on a good path now. 

I think you’ll see more innovative technology in the on-screen presentation of the sport; stats, the speed of players, tracking of players and so on. We’re also looking at some innovations in the Hawk-Eye area. Up until now, we’ve been using it for, if you like, split screen adjudication of some of the refereeing decisions, on touch in particular, and also for player welfare; replaying of some of the incidents of foul play. I think though that we can go further with our use of Hawk-Eye and some of the technology we’re working on.  

We’re still two years out; there are things that can happen and technology moves so fast. You think you’re up to date and suddenly you see something in another sport and you grab that. I think a lot of the other sports have learned from us too. I think our TMO technology, whilst at the outset has been a little more cumbersome than we’d like, is now down to a fine art that we’ll continue to develop. 

To keep up to date with all things World Rugby, follow on Twitter @WorldRugby or Brett @BrettGosper



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