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The new Rugby

04 April 2013

Australia’s female Rugby Sevens team holds the world No. 2 spot, and according to the ARU’s first female Board member, Ann Sherry, has Gold Medal prospects in Rio in 2016. Rugby, it seems, is changing.

The inclusion of Rugby Sevens in the 2016 Olympic Games has provided the game at the international level and in Australia with a golden opportunity to encourage more participation in the sport at both player and fan levels, especially among women.

In July last year, Ann Sherry, one of Australia’s most successful businesswomen, was appointed to the ARU’s governing board. Her appointment reflects the growing number of elite sports bodies in Australia reviewing their structures and catching up on a raft of commercial governance trends for the good of their sport, community, fan and player bases.

“Sport is big business,” points out Ann, yet from her experience on the Australian Sports Commission many of the sporting bodies had not dealt with the issues of business, such as good governance, transparency and accountability, in any conclusive way.

Diversity, for example, in board and management, exemplified most visually by what is missing from the mix on a gender level, also suffered on the geographic, cultural, economic, social, demographic and chronologic levels because of outdated, unchanging structural traditions.

As Ann points out, if as a business you were to seek funding, then it’s very important to be able to account openly and transparently for how you successfully and sustainably govern your processes and policies internally and externally.

Ann, who now has visibility of ARU in particular, following her Sports Commission role, believes that although the ARU is more corporate than many other sporting bodies, it is still undergoing rapid transformation following the handing down of its review findings in a report at the end of 2012.

“There weren’t any surprises,” says Ann. “Similar to many sports in review, the ARU report highlights the need a la the ASX for more transparent and robust governance and management structures at all levels of the sport.

“The board, for example, needs the capacity and a mechanism to refresh. An action from the review, which is different to the way a corporate might function, is the appointment of an independent nominations committee – a group that scouts the universe of possible directors and provides recommendations to the board. The States and National bodies would nominate the committee members.

“The challenge now is how quickly can we drive the change and what is the pace of that change. There’s appetite for Rugby to be the leading football code in Australia and we have some catching up to do.”

Ann, who is the CEO of Carnival Australia, the largest cruise ship operator in Australasia, is well known to Ruby members for her history of corporate, political and social justice roles. She has a long track record as part of organisations driving change and growth. Under her watch the cruising market in these waters has exploded – doubling since 2007.

According to the statistics, players of Rugby Sevens is the fastest growing form of the game worldwide. It’s a phenomenon encouraging growth in both the short and long forms (aka Rugby Fifteens) of the code with players and fans alike. The ARU is capitalising upon this interest hoping to catapult the code forward into what Ann is hoping will become a “national obsession”.

“I worked in New Zealand for 5 years, where Rugby is the premier code. I can’t see why we can’t make the same happen here in Australia. Our strategy is to develop our ability to draw on the broader community, focusing outside the inner city on players and fans who reflect the way our communities’ look.”

By age 14, statistics for girls in the US show they “abandon sports at a rate six times greater than boys. Girls who don't participate in sports by age 10 have just a 10 per cent chance of being active at 25.”

But the really compelling finding of a US survey done around the part sport plays in career success is that of a large group (more than 400) of highly successful American women, 82 per cent had played sport throughout their education and most of that group had played teams sports.

“Team activities,” they said, “helped them succeed in a competitive work environment.”

Ann, says, she hears from and knows of many families who want their girls to play team sports, and Rugby (Sevens, especially) is high on the list.

It seems there’s a whole dynamic in team sports, ball sports in particular, that many girls miss out on because the options for that sort of interaction with sport have traditionally been more limited.

Teamwork, we know, is about understanding that the sum of the parts is greater than the individual contributions offered, and that team members have to develop the capacity to compromise.

“Sports, such as Rugby,” explains Ann, “also allow players to learn about entering an environment where the combat is contained in that arena and where what happens on the field stays on the field. What happens in the game is not personal. I think that’s a very interesting dynamic and one that many women don’t get to experience.

“Team play is also an incredible bonding experience. There’s a sort of kinship network, a whole support and mentoring network that comes from having played sports like Rugby, which, until quite recently, has arguably created networks for men that most women could never have joined.”

The corporate and sponsorship network around Rugby is also highly influential, making the sorts of networking opportunities available to women worthwhile.
So, how is the ARU going to navigate the road to premier football code in the country, launch and drive Rugby Sevens, boost Fifteens and create spectacular entertainment for fans that keeps them coming back for more?

“It’s a bit like eating an elephant. You have to do it a chunk at a time,” says Ann, displaying a keen sense of humour about the enormity of the project in front of Rugby and the board.

The use of social media is something that is being discussed.

“Thinking about the P&O experience,” begins Ann. “We have around 200,000 Facebook friends and many of them talk to each other every day. Social media is a very wide demographic and all of our cruise brands have large Facebook and Twitter sites. I can safely say: if you have a question, post it, because there’s someone there in the community to answer it for you.

“The potential for Rugby to develop its communities – the network of supporters – and for us to get information out to the fans and players, as well as to market the game through social media, is huge.”

As the bold new world of Rugby unfolds before players and fans with an international tour this year and the lead up to an Olympics to follow, it will be fascinating to watch the code’s progress on a world stage.