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Graham Jenkins is a former senior editor of ESPNscrum

Brett Gosper Interview
From regulation to inspiration
Graham Jenkins
September 16, 2013
IRB chief executive Brett Gosper is the public face of the sport's governing body © Getty Images

"It's been fascinating and enjoyable but challenging as well," reflected International Rugby Board chief executive Brett Gosper when asked to sum up what has been an eventful year or so since he took up the role and became the public face of the sport's governing body.

Brett Gosper on...

  • RWC'15 in England? "They are on course to provide an outstanding event...I'm sure it will be a commercial record breaker and probably a viewing and crowd record-breaker as well."
  • Global calendar? "It is Rubik's cube complicated for all sorts of reasons. I think there may be a look at it at some point to see if there can be a better solution than the current season structure but it is not a pressing issue at this point."
  • Super Rugby in Japan? "I don't know how certain or not that is, but it would obviously be very good for rugby in Japan and a good development tool for the sport."
  • Future of the Heineken Cup? "It's not for us to make a call on the exact make-up of their competitions and money splits and the rest of it and we certainly hope that they resolve the conversations and negotiations going on in that area. But a European Cup, as the Heineken Cup is, is a terrific contributor to the game."
  • Twitter? "I guess I do enjoy it but there are times I wish I hadn't started it."
  • Biggest surprise in last year? "The sheer breadth of issues you get involved in and the velocity at which they come at you."
  • Scrums? "We're certainly seeing some encouraging initial feedback from this latest trial and there is no reason to think it will not be successful"
  • Concussion? "It is a very emotive area and it is a very high priority for us to ensure we are at the leading edge of this whole area."
  • RWC'19 in Japan? "We're doing everything we can do in the region to make sure we exploit the fact the World Cup will be there in 2019."

The former advertising executive has attacked the role with vigour, generating almost as many headlines as air miles he has clocked up circumnavigating the globe on a quest to get to know the inner workings of the operation while also attempting to re-vamp the organisation's profile. It is an approach that has won him and the sport many friends and alienated others but don't expect him to ease up - he's only just got started.

"Our role is to promote the game as much as it is to regulate it," Gosper told ESPN. "I think we tend to be looked at like the referee on the field but we have a bigger promotional, marketing and developmental role than that.

Expanding on that belief, he added: "The IRB has its roots in regulation and the more legal aspects of the game but with the growth of the Rugby World Cup, 7s and now the Olympics it forces us to engage with the public a lot more and understand how they are feeling about the game and our products. It is also essential that they understand what the IRB are trying to do. What I say is that our main focus will always be our role as a regulator but I want to move the emphasis from one of regulation to one more of inspiration."

To that end, Gosper is keen to leverage rugby union's selling points as the sport looks to expand its global footprint. "We spend a lot of time working on what we believe to be the essence of the rugby because we believe the sport has got unique vales, core character building values and that is a specific aspect of rugby that other sports don't have and we will push hard to promote those values alongside products like the Rugby World Cup, the HSBC Sevens and the Olympics."

Gosper is well aware of the need to entertain but insists that it will not come at the expense of their other duties. "We are in the sports entertainment business, there is no question about that," he said. "You can't put on a Rugby World Cup with a TV audience of four billion and not think you are in the entertainment business. But we are also the body that ensures the integrity of the game is maintained."

Brett Gosper wants a strong European conmpetition

That desire to engage the rugby world also saw Gosper embrace Twitter - a decision that has attracted criticism from some quarters. "I enjoy it because I learn a lot from it," he said, having engaged fans, players and pundits on key issues in the game. "I'm sure some people in the rugby world question the time and effort I put into that area but I think it is worthwhile because of the incredible amount of opinion and information available.

"You can fall victim to it and get a little tangled so you have got to be incredibly careful in some ways and I'm probably a little more cautious than I was at the beginning which my Twitter followers may not want but I'll keep it up because I think it is important."

Player welfare has emerged as a key theme of his tenure with sport's treatment of concussion no doubt dominating his inbox. "It is a very emotive area and it is a very high priority for us to ensure we are at the leading edge of this whole area," said Gosper. The IRB introduced the controversial Pitch Side Concussion Assessment trial (PSCA) last year in a bid to ensure concussed players were removed from play but have been accused of mishandling the issue. In particular, they were the subject of widespread flak in the wake of the decision to allow the clearly-concussed Australia flanker George Smith to return to play during their 3rd Test against the British & Irish Lions earlier this year having passed a PSCA test.

"I think there has been a couple of questionable applications of the protocol but we are comfortable with the way we are managing it," he insisted. "I think there has been some misinterpretation of our protocol caused by some events on the field in recent times. Generally speaking we think the PSCA assessment is a very strong protocol. It is meant to be a last resort test to get players off the field if there is any suspicion of concussion - it certainly shouldn't be seen as a test to get players through and back on the field.

"All things point to us doing the right things in the right way," he added."Five minutes off the field away from the heat of the game is a good but never perfect process to give one more chance at seeing if that person has concussion. Of course if that person has any other signs of concussion then he should not be going through a PSCA - they should be pulled off the field automatically.

On the subject of the Smith case, he said: "No protocol is completely fail-safe - he shouldn't have been tested. Certainly the TV viewer was sure he should have been taken off that field, unfortunately the medical staff did not have the same view as we did sitting at home in our armchairs and that was unfortunate."

"We're certainly seeing some encouraging initial feedback from this trial and there is no reason to think it will not be successful."

Breathing life back into the scrum has been another priority and Gosper is buoyed by the results of the latest 'Crouch, Bind, Set' engagement trial - designed to limit the amount of resets and improve player welfare with the added benefit of improving the set-piece and the game in general as a spectacle. "We have all gone after this very hard to try and resolve what was a dramatic situation from an aesthetic point of view," he said. "We have moved very fast and hard to get ourselves in a time cycle where we can globally trial this sequence and be ready a year out from the World Cup and everyone is comfortable with it by the time we get there. We're certainly seeing some encouraging initial feedback from this trial and there is no reason to think it will not be successful - it will not be perfect but certainly seems to be heading towards a markedly positive change from where we were."

Gosper inherited a sport already destined to return to the Olympics - albeit in its 7s form - and is confident that they are on course for Rio in 2016. "We will do everything to make sure it goes well, " he said. "We know 7s is a great sport and we know from our own experience both in the Commonwealth Games and our own tournaments that it attracts big crowds and gets people involved - and we will be drawing on that experience to ensure we put on a great show in Rio."

Holding onto their place at the Olympic table will be the next target and Gosper is confident of making a fan out of new IOC president Thomas Bach who is not a former rugby international like his predecessor Jacques Rogge. "The Olympics people are fans of sports that contribute to the Olympic movement and that have their own personality, profile and create interest in the Games. If we deliver in Rio then Thomas Bach will no doubt be a fan of rugby."

Before Rio, the world's best will gather for the 2015 World Cup in England that according to Gosper, who also serves as the managing director of Rugby World Cup Ltd, is shaping up as an unprecedented success. "In terms of most criteria it will be the biggest," he said. "With no disrespect to past World Cups, we would be happy if people consider it the best ever because it means we will have learnt from previous World Cups. Debbie Jevans on the part of England Rugby 2015 and Kit McConnell on our side have a very good relationship they are on course to provide an outstanding event. I'm sure it will be a commercial record breaker and probably a viewing and crowd record-breaker as well."

Despite a gruelling introduction to his role, Gosper's enthusiasm shows no signs of waning and he is relishing the challenges - if not the flights - that lie ahead. "I think we are coming into the next cycle of the HSBC Sevens so that is going to be incredibly important while keeping an eye on Rugby World Cup and preparing for the Olympic Games. There is lots to keep us busy."

IRB CEO Brett Gosper, ER 2015 CEO Debbie Jevans and RWC and IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset clasp the World Cup © Getty Images
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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