LONDON (Reuters) - The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating financial impact on rugby around the world but has given the sport a convenient opportunity to once again focus on the perennial challenge of a global calendar, World Rugby head Brett Gosper said on Monday.
Marking the one-year anniversary of the 2019 World Cup final, the sport's governing body published figures from data company Nielsen showing a surge in interest globally, led by the women's game and, in Asia particularly, the World Cup in Japan.
"We're pleased from an operational point of view how rugby has responded to the challenge (of COVID) and, coupled with some figures in this report, that allows us to look past this time for a very optimistic future," Gosper told a news conference.
"We were very fortunate in terms of revenue funding that we got a World Cup away just in time, and the next one is three years away and will be a bumper one in revenue terms so we can be relatively optimistic - though we have to change our forecasting and cut budgets considerably."
Despite the positive long-term view, however, Gosper said World Rugby was acting as a "central bank", earmarking around $100 million to support 30 unions, with the bulk of the money going to the bigger unions, facing the bigger losses.
Other than a handful of games in the southern hemisphere, most major matches have been played without fans since the pandemic struck. Only TV deals are keeping the bigger unions afloat but world champions South Africa have not played a match since hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup in Tokyo 12 months ago.
"It's been devastating from a revenue point of view," Gosper said. "The more reliant you are on gate, hospitality and ticketing, the more devastating it is going to be, so it's important we can contribute to them staying cash viable for as long as possible."
The pause in the game has at least given the stakeholders the chance to again discuss the ever-thorny calendar issue, with some of the "lines in the sand" potentially no longer so deep after the way the game has been forced to reshuffle this year.
"The pandemic has been constructive in focusing people's minds to look at models whereas in the hustle and bustle of normal season parameters there might not have been that willingness to engage," Gosper said. "The willingness to get together to talk and collaborate has been refreshing.
"The big debate is whether there is a combined window in October and November and within that can games have enhanced meaning by being part of a competition? If so, how often?
"We are looking at all of those aspects and in December we are hoping to land some conclusions."
Anyone expecting a dramatic change in the current set-up and an end to friction between club and country in the near future is likely to be disappointed, however, with Gosper suggesting there is little chance for change before 2024.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ken Ferris)