On the eve of the rugby World Cup World Rugby has published participation figures, provided by each of the member unions, that shows a strong increase in the number playing the game.

The 2023 figures paint a positive picture for community rugby with the sport now played by 8.46 million players across 132 national member unions, an increase of 11 per cent on 2022 levels. Emerging rugby nations and women and girls are the major drivers of new growth for the game.

In a marked opportunity for the sport to grow further 57 percent of those registered as players are 12 years old or younger.

Almost a quarter of total participants are now female both in the youth and adult age groups.

Belgium, Spain, Singapore, Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia are amongst the emerging nations experiencing the strongest growth.

The 2023 figures follow a record-breaking women’s Rugby World Cup 2021 played in 2022, which smashed all previous attendance, engagement and viewership records, providing a strong platform for the game to reach and inspire the next generation of players and supporters.

They come ahead of a men’s Rugby World Cup in France that has delivered record in-market awareness and positivity ratings ahead of kick-off this weekend.

They also are an important reversal of a downward trend that emerged during Covid where a main driver of the reduction in participation during the pandemic was the inability for casual rugby in schools and introductory Get Into Rugby (GIR) programmes to be run in many nations.

World Rugby is investing £575 million in the development of the sport between 2020-23, including support for unions and regions for the development of the game. This will be further enhanced through the provision of a greater range of services to better enable them to grow the game around the world.

“The global pandemic was the biggest societal disruption in recent times, and sport was certainly not immune,” said World Rugby Chair Sir Bill Beaumont.

“As a sport, we responded diligently by supporting our regions and unions both financially and with the implementation of the ‘Game On Community Law Variations’, and opt-in reduced tackle height trial in the community game. I would like to thank everyone, including the huge group of community club volunteers, who have made this possible.”

“There truly is a form of the game for all – non contact, contact, sevens, fifteens – and I am excited to see girls and boys, men and women return to the sport in their millions or taking it up for the first time ahead of Rugby World Cup 2023 in France that will inspire a new generation to play and support the game.”

“However, we will not stand still. More than 80 percent of our players come from 20 nations and we must continue to ensure that our sport is as safe, attractive, accessible and relevant as possible in order to continue to grow beyond our traditional heartlands. Working tirelessly with our unions, we are committed to cementing rugby as the most progressive sport on player welfare, while also exploring ways to enhance the playing and viewing experience.”

“Encouragingly, the return to rugby in the 15s game in 2023 was driven by pre-teens with 57 percent of all players around the globe pre-teen, 24 percent of them girls, demonstrating a deep connection between the attractiveness of the sport and the next generation of adult community players,” added World Rugby Participation Director Jason Lewis.

“The challenge for all sports is retention given the competition in the entertainment and sports space and in 2021 we launched a renewed Participation Plan in partnership with unions and regions and continue to work towards making the sport as accessible and relevant as possible for young people with limited time.”

“At the heart of the plan is to support unions to develop their capability and capacity and the ‘Game On Global’ community law variations are a great example which shows how World Rugby can support unions to drive the accessibility and sustainability of the sport. Aimed at simplicity, enjoyment, safety and getting games on irrespective of numbers, the programme provides a menu of options for unions. We must, therefore, continue to showcase the great versatility of rugby in all its formats as an inclusive and accessible sport for all.”