The CEO of England Rugby on tech and travel
Bill Sweeney talks about the future of the RFU, from data-driven gum shields to saliva tests for concussion, and shares his favourite memories of travelling for work
What are you most looking forward to this year for the RFU?
A number of things really. We’re a membership organisation, so it’s not just the England men’s and England women’s national teams and all the excitement around the Guinness Six Nations and other tournaments. We have 1,900 clubs around the country that we represent and are responsible for in terms of the governing of the game: the regulations, the laws, the development of coaches, the development of officials and so on. I find it absolutely incredible that throughout the period when all clubs were hit very hard by the loss of revenue and closing doors, not one single club has gone bust, which was fantastic. What I’m looking forward to now, as it feels as if we’re coming out of Covid, is a period of stability for the community game, where teams can concentrate on getting their players back, sort their clubs out and look forward with a bit of certainty to how many matches they’re going to play.
We’ve just finished the men’s Six Nations tournament. That leads us then into the summer test series in Australia, and then we’ll have a bumper autumn series with South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and Argentina coming to us. And, of course, also within the year we’ve got the Rugby World Cup 2021. Hopefully that will now go ahead in New Zealand this October. The Red Roses have been going tremendously well, had an awesome series unbeaten, and they’re going into the Tik Tok Women's Six Nations as strong favourites against a good French team. So to come away with – touch wood – a World Cup win for the women would be an absolutely fantastic boost for the women’s game in general, and I think for women’s sports in the country.
What are your longer-term hopes and vision for the RFU?
Diversity for us has always been a priority and features strongly in our strategy. We had a programme in place prior to the tragic events around George Floyd, which I think really heightened and brought more attention to the topic of diversity and racism and how you manage that and address it in society. The players have a voice there now and they want to express that voice. I think the challenge for us is that rugby has always been an inclusive sport. We pride ourselves on being open for all and on being accessible for anyone who comes to the clubhouse, but I don’t think that’s sufficient in this day and age. You can’t just sit there in the comfort of your own structure and think you’re doing enough. We’ve got to proactively go out and convince people why they should get involved in rugby, convince different ethnic and socio-economic groups why rugby can offer them something that they perhaps don’t realise currently. You can’t just sit behind your own doors and wait for people to come to you. So that’s something that we’re working very hard on now. Having a network of clubs around the country will enable us to have that kind of outreach, and that’s very much a priority.
Innovation will play its biggest role in player welfare. Rugby is a contact sport. If you take the tackle out of the game, if you take the physicality out of the game, if you take the contest out of the game, you don’t have rugby. Medical science and innovation will play a key role in that. We’re just about to roll out a programme of instrumented mouthguards, which we’ll use both in competition and training, and that will allow us to measure much more effectively the sorts of impacts that are happening to the head. With that data, we’ll be able to look at the effects that come with certain law changes and alterations to how the game is played. We’re also at the advanced stages of developing a saliva test, which, if you’ve had a bump on the head, will allow you to deposit a saliva sample with your local pharmacy and then the next day you can get a readout that will tell you whether you’ve been concussed and the severity of that concussion. In the professional game, which is incredibly well policed now, you have independent medical practitioners at the top end of the game. At a community club, you don’t necessarily have that, so the ability for a community player to be able to test themselves and be aware of their medical situation is really important to us. I think, with innovation, that’s the area it applies to most.
I’d also say that we feel that the game can be presented in perhaps a slightly more appealing manner. We’ve been a little bit slow and safe in the way that we’ve presented rugby to fans and to digital and TV audiences, we’re looking at innovation in terms of how we package our content and make sure that rugby is as interesting, exciting and entertaining as it could possibly be.
What are your favourite rugby destinations, cities or tournaments, and what makes each one special to you?
Prior to being CEO of England Rugby, I was CEO of Team GB at the Olympics. We also had a partnership with British Airways, and it’d be impossible for me not to remember Rio 2016, and what we experienced there. I remember sitting on the runway with 360-odd athletes on the flight coming back from Rio. We’d come second in the table, achieved 67 medals, and had done incredibly well, but what I felt to be our biggest achievement was that we were getting all those athletes back home safe and sound from a city that’s an amazing place in terms of energy. It’s a beautiful, beautiful city. I remember sitting on that BA flight heading back, thinking it just felt really great to be there and heading home having done so well.
Tokyo is a big favourite of mine and going to the World Cup was terrific in 2019. The way the Japanese people really took to that tournament – the way they hosted it, the energy they provided, the passion and excitement around rugby was fantastic – and they did a brilliant job considering they had a typhoon to handle in the middle of it, so Tokyo would be right up there for me.
There’s Hong Kong as well. When the Hong Kong Sevens are on, it’s a remarkable place to be. The excitement around that and the carnival atmosphere of a Hong Kong Sevens weekend is really great. So they’d be my three top ones: Rio, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
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