World Rugby’s bid to build a more sustainable Rugby World Cup

December 07 2023

World Rugby is determined to drive forward with a sustainable agenda whilst opening up its flagship Rugby World Cup to as wide a community of rugby-playing nations as possible.

World Rugby’s bid to build a more sustainable Rugby World Cup

As the dust settles on the most thrilling Rugby World Cup yet in France this year, attention is already turning to the future of the tournament, including the next edition in Australia in four years’ time.

Four days before the final of this year’s Rugby World Cup, which was won by South Africa for a record fourth time, the World Rugby Council approved a revamp of the flagship competition’s format, window and timing. 

The headline change will be an expansion of the tournament from 20 to 24 teams in 2027. However, like other aspirational international federations seeking to expand its major properties and deliver financial sustainability, such grand plans inevitably bring questions regarding environmental sustainability – particularly in relation to travel.

After all, one might presume that four extra teams will ensure Rugby World Cup 2027 will generate a larger carbon footprint than its predecessor four years earlier. 

However, according to Dorian Grimaud, Senior Communications Manager at World Rugby, such an assumption is misplaced.

Competition conundrum

Grimaud stressed to Global Sustainable Sport that efforts to broaden the horizons of the tournament by opening it up to even more developing rugby nations would not be at the expense of the governing body’s umbrella sustainability strategy.

As an example, he points to the fact that the length of the competition itself will actually be reduced to six weeks.

“The first step is to understand where the emissions come from and what we are responsible for,” Grimaud says. “Fan travel was estimated to account for 80% of the total emissions associated with this year’s tournament, so we worked hard with partners like SNCF [the French state-owned railway company] to open up the ticket-booking system earlier than usual so fans could take advantage.”

However, arguably the most high-profile initiative focused on team travel between host cities.

“We imposed a rule on all teams travelling within France that if their journey was less than 5.5 hours, they would have to take a train or a bus, and this resulted in more than 70 train journeys for teams,” Grimaud adds.

“Team travel is a drop in the ocean in comparison with fan travel, but it sends the right message for the audience and our initiative is a great legacy. We proved there was a model that can be used so that professional athletes can travel via public transport.

“We started consultations with the teams two years out so they were completely on board with this. It is important that the teams show the right example.”

Other efforts were made to avoid costly white elephant infrastructure developments. Roland Garros in Paris, the home of the French Open tennis Grand Slam, was the main media centre for the tournament, rather than a newbuild venue.

A Carbon Absorption Programme was also introduced, giving host cities the opportunity, for instance, to invest in offsetting their carbon footprint. By the end of October, nearly €2m had been pledged, with hopes that the total will ultimately reach €4-5m once carbon footprint totals have been totted up.

Partner roles

Whether the partners have been host cities or commercial entities, World Rugby is well aware of the power of leveraging their collaborations to drive change.

In this regard, teaming up with like-minded associates is essential.

“Sustainability is a key topic for discussion, even with renewals,” Grimaud explains, in the context of commercial affiliates. “Brands are looking for a value proposition. They like rugby because of the qualities of the sport, such as respect and solidarity, and the sustainability element is now coming into the conversation all the time.

“We have big ambitions in developing women’s rugby and encouraging positive change in sustainability, and financial support is really important with those goals. In the end, we want all stakeholders to be aligned with our ambitions in the private and public space.”

This desired alignment of ideals extends into the sport’s national member unions, which sit under the global governing body’s umbrella. This was the driving force behind the launch of World Rugby’s Environmental Sustainability Plan 2030 at the start of last year.

Under the plan, all high-performance rugby unions will have developed their own sustainability plans, monitoring and reporting on progress by 2030, and all affiliated World Rugby unions and regions will have signed up to the UN’s Sport for Climate Action Framework by 2025. 

At the heart of the plan, it has three key themes: Climate action, circular economy and protecting the natural environment. 

In terms of climate action, the aim is to adopt measures to align with the Paris Agreement. It is hoped that collaborating with local event organisers will reduce carbon footprints of events by 50% by 2030, without relying on offsetting. 

“We wanted to publish a roadmap for all our unions to align – so that was a big milestone to commit to the Paris Agreement and reducing emissions by 50% by 2030,” Grimaud adds.

Environmental Sustainability Plan

World Rugby’s Environmental Sustainability Plan 2030 comprises four pillars: Governance; addressing the body’s direct impacts; delivering and supporting sustainable rugby events; and promoting sustainability in rugby through education, advocacy and knowledge sharing. 

The governing body’s commitments also cover three spheres of responsibility: World Rugby as an organisation; World Rugby as an owner of major events; and World Rugby as an international federation. These further spheres of responsibility focus on the day-to-day running of the body’s offices and staff; growth surrounding Rugby World Cup Rugby World Cup Sevens and HSBC SVNS; and its 128 national member federations affiliated through six regional associations. 

Under a new model featuring eight events rather than 12, the HSBC SVNS is now delivering gender parity, with all seven rounds and the Grand Final featuring combined men’s and women’s competitions and equal participation fees, with a 70% uplift in World Rugby’s investment in participation fees as a commitment to sustainable growth.

More broadly, in terms of the circular economy, the aim is for all World Rugby event organisers to commit to reducing single-use items by 50% by this year and by 80% by 2027 from a 2019 baseline, whilst additionally ensuring all working and repairable electronic equipment can be reused after World Rugby events from 2025.

Addressing issues surrounding single-use plastic, short-life materials and waste management, World Rugby’s circular economy theme will see the governing body work on managing materials and resources. Another theme is based on how rugby can help to sustain ecosystems and promote healthier environments wherever the sport is played.

Against the backdrop of World Rugby’s Environmental Sustainability Plan 2030, a collaborative World Rugby and France 2023 sustainability action plan was formulated to support and include all members of society, promote positive climate action and drive carbon reduction.

Progress

According to Grimaud, the aim is to deliver real progress on a year-by-year basis.

Following this year’s Rugby World Cup, World Rugby will launch a toolkit for grassroots rugby organisations and clubs to protect biodiversity, and a report will be published that will explore the sustainability of rugby stretching to 2050.

Grimaud asks: “Are we going to be able to play rugby in the same way we can now, if we take into account sea level rises and the impact of heatwaves and droughts? We need to empower our member unions and bring them with us on this journey through education.

“We want our member unions to have sustainability strategies and we need them to be equipped as much as possible. It is about being more responsible every year, making sure there is accountability, and joining the global effort.

“We have thought about how things could be done differently – as with the HSBC SVNS, for example – and we are looking at ways of reducing team travel in the initial phases of the next edition of the Rugby World Cup.

“We are not there yet, and it won’t take a year, two years or even five. We are on a sustainable journey and the aim is to take credible steps and do things better and more efficiently.”

Images: Courtesy of World Rugby

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