Is 2019 the Year that “English-Style Olive Ball” Takes Over the World?

Danny Cipriani

In just over one year’s time, the rugby-watching world will be gearing up for the 2019 Rugby World Cup which for the first time, will be held in Asia. Hosts Japan have been a part of every RWC so far. They bounced back from a crushing 145-17 defeat at the hands of New Zealand in 1995, to defeat former champions South Africa 34-32 in the 2015 tournament. Expectations will be high for them to perform again next year, and possibly advance past the pool stage for the first time. But Japan are not the only emerging nation in the rugby world. The game is gaining in popularity at an extraordinary rate, with the number of fans worldwide increasing from 793 million in 2013 to over 800 million today. This 24% increase is fuelled by 33 million new fans from China and the USA, and 25 million coming from India. These newcomers make up approximately 30% of rugby’s global fanbase. While it’s great that so many more people are watching the game, are more people playing it? The answer is an emphatic yes.

Football without the Armour

2018 was a landmark year for American rugby, as the first season of Major League Rugby was completed. It’s not the first time that a proper rugby league has been launched in the US, but this is the first that really seemed to succeed. Much of this is down to Rugby being reinstated as an Olympic sport. To many Europeans, it will come as a shock that the USA are the world’s most successful Olympic rugby team, having won gold in 1920 and 1924. It was the USA’s 1924 shock defeat of host nation France that led to rugby being removed as a sport. The French crowd, appalled that they could be beaten by such a team, invaded the pitch and the USA team needed a police escort to get away. While the full game is still not an Olympic sport, Sevens was reintroduced at the 2016 Rio Olympics, to great fanfare.

Sevens is a more accessible sport, especially for newcomers to the game. It’s fast paced, open, exciting, and over in two seven-minute halves. It also offers teams that aren’t named ‘New Zealand’ (just for example) the opportunity to shine. At the Rio games, perennial minnows Fiji took home their first and only gold medal, while Japan game a very respectable fourth.  The USA have also had a good run of luck in the HSBC Sevens tournament, winning at home in Las Vegas during this year’s tour. There is also a Women’s Sevens tournament, and the USA, China and Japanese teams have all won a few stages.

Webb-Ellis Tour of the East

As is traditional in the run-up to the World Cup, the Webb-Ellis Trophy is currently on a world tour. The stopover in India was a huge success, with a record-breaking 15,000 school kids turning up to see the trophy. India is currently ranked first in Asia for participation in rugby, with 160,000 participants playing a game during 2017 (40% of which were female). And given that India, China and to a lesser extent, the USA have much bigger populations than most European countries, the small percentage of those populations that describe themselves as rugby fans easily dwarves the figures that Europe can produce. India has 25 million rugby fans, and that puts them in third place behind China and the USA.

When dealing with China, everything seems bigger. World Rugby has said that they hope that 1 million Chinese people would play rugby over the next ten years. For most nations, this would seem like a preposterously optimistic estimate. Instead, with approximately 75 thousand new players every year, they have had to adjust that estimate to five years instead. Alisports, the sporting arm of megacorporation Alibaba, has invested $100 million to bring rugby matches and tournaments into people’s homes. With the RWC in 2019 and then the Olympic Sevens being held in Japan in 2020, there’s a great opportunity to enjoy top-level tournaments in a relatively local environment. And of course, there’s always the HSBC Sevens tournaments which, along with a well-established stop-off in Hong Kong, now also visits Singapore.

Under these conditions, and with this support, there’s a good chance that “English-style Olive Ball” (which is what ‘rugby’ literally translates to in Mandarin) could become one of the world’s most popular sports.