How World Rugby’s new Rugby for Nature initiative plans to protect the natural world

April 25 2024

Nature was in the spotlight this week as millions around the world, from sport and beyond, marked Earth Day.

How World Rugby’s new Rugby for Nature initiative plans to protect the natural world

But, as Global Sustainable Sport reported last week, the emphasis on protecting nature isn’t confined to an annual celebration.

In fact, the sports industry is becoming increasingly aware of the need to integrate nature and biodiversity protection into wider sustainability strategies.

This week, World Rugby joined other sports in the industry – including football, biathlon, and golf – in these efforts by launching its new Rugby for Nature toolkit, which uses a rugby-based ‘game plan’ to encourage rugby communities to take action to protect the environment.

So what is the new toolkit about, and can action plans tailored to individual sports really help tackle the biodiversity crisis?

Sport, nature, and biodiversity

The UN has named climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution as the ‘triple planetary crisis’, and the three are closely linked. As Global Sustainable Sport reported last week, reducing biodiversity loss and protecting the natural world is critical if we want to protect life on earth.

Meanwhile, concern about the natural environment is increasingly widespread. This year’s Britain Talks Climate report, published this week by Climate Outreach, More in Common, and the European Climate Foundation, found that the climate impact that most people in the UK are currently worried about is ‘loss of nature’, while 20% feel that the loss of nature and wildlife is harming their physical or mental health.

Many sports – including rugby – rely heavily on access to nature and green spaces, including lakes, rivers, oceans, and forests. At the same time, if biodiversity protection measures are implemented, sports and training grounds can themselves promote biodiversity and provide homes for wildlife – but clubs and organisations will need guidance to do this.

Launched in 2022, the Sports for Nature framework – a collaboration between the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), International Olympic Committee (IOC), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and Sails of Change – is the main body that focuses on providing advice and guidance for sport when it comes to nature protection.

Now, more governing bodies, federations, clubs and events are creating their own initiatives, projects and approaches that draw on each sports’ specific strengths.

So how does World Rugby’s new toolkit attempt to support these goals?

The Rugby for Nature toolkit

The Rugby for Nature toolkit is essentially a step-by-step plan that gives concrete examples of actions that rugby clubs can take to protect nature and their environment.

The toolkit, which was developed in collaboration with UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and other Sports for Nature partners, grew out of an awareness that many rugby clubs wanted to take action, but had limited access to quality information or guidance.

“The toolkit was actually inspired by discussions with people at Oxford Harlequins rugby club in England who were passionate about protecting the natural environment but lacked simple guidance to get started,” Jaime McKeown, Sustainability, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at World Rugby, tells Global Sustainable Sport.

 “It triggered us to think about a resource that all rugby clubs and communities from grassroot to professional levels could easily understand and implement, with a limited budget.”

The actions laid out in the plan are grouped into three phases – the try, the conversion, and the drop goal. The aim is to take enough actions to achieve ten points.

“The toolkit was developed following rugby’s scoring system to make it engaging,” McKeown explains. “An initial five points for the try, two further actions for the conversion, and three for the drop goal.”

The actions begin with the basics, including building a team, mapping out how a club’s operations and activities affect nature, and drafting and setting a game plan.

Some of these may seem obvious, but laying out a step-by-step process can be a useful prompt for clubs who aren’t sure where to begin.

The second phase of actions include more concrete suggestions, such as assessing food and drink choices and addressing suppliers and partners. The third phase includes tips for raising awareness among fans and following a ‘Plan-Do-Check-Act’ approach to make sure that clubs continue to improve.

The resource is available for World Rugby member unions as well as the wider public, and has been published in four languages.

Scoring points for nature

 The Rugby for Nature toolkit is an example of how governing bodies can enable concrete action on environment and sustainability issues by providing simple, accessible, evidence-based tools.

A real strength of tools like these lies in the fact that any club – from the elite to grassroots levels – can use and apply them.

One downside to this one-size-fits-all approach may be a lack of granular detail. A more extensive list of concrete actions for clubs to choose from could help flesh out the toolkit even further.

But starting with broad actions can undoubtedly be a useful way to engage clubs that may still be early on in their sustainability journey.

Meanwhile, the toolkit could also prove useful for sports beyond rugby, and could be easily adapted.

World Rugby have confirmed that “the template has already been shared with other turf-based sports and can be adapted and replicated to suit the needs of similar ecosystems such as football, cricket and hockey”.

While how widely the toolkit is taken up remains to be seen, one clear benefit of tools and initiatives like Rugby for Nature is making sure that nature and biodiversity considerations are on the wider sustainability agenda in sport. Tips like creating wildlife habitats on sports facilities, avoiding insecticides and pesticides, reducing and avoiding mowing, and restoring wildflower patches can be broadly applied across all sports and at all levels.

“We hope this initiative will help those within and outside rugby and perhaps inspire other turf sports to provide nature a home within and around their facilities,” says McKeown.

As with broader environmental and social issues, by developing and promoting toolkits like Rugby for Nature, sport governing bodies can play a leading role in helping shift behaviour change – and addressing the wider public’s concerns about ‘loss of nature’.

McKeown agrees, and says: “We are deeply convinced that rugby and sport can empower participants and fans to adopt sustainable behaviour and contribute to create a better world and a healthier planet.”

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