Rugby fans in Wales are still celebrating their Six Nations grand slam, and even though World Cup runners-up England under-performed, the annual tournament was more popular than ever before.
Indeed, ever since the sport went professional in 1996, attendances at rugby grounds have steadily grown, and corporate brands have become ever more keen to make use of rugby stars in their promotional campaigns.
The trend accelerated after England's World Cup win in 2003, and it shows no sign of abating. Rebecca Hopkins, MD at sports PR specialist ENS, reports that her agency's talent management division has seen rugby player appearances increase by over 200 per cent between 2006 and 2007. By 2007, 86 per cent of the agency's turnover came from work with rugby players.
More than just good looks
There is more to this trend than companies wanting to associate themselves with World Cup winners. Richard Thompson, chairman of Merlin Elite, an agency that represents footballers such as Jamie Redknapp and Graham Le Saux and rugby players including Matt Dawson and Paul Sackey, believes rugby players are popular because they can do so much more than just photo shoots.
He says: ‘There is no doubt that demand for rugby players to act as brand ambassadors is increasing exponentially. Crucially, they are getting involved with below-the-line work, presenting products to the media, speaking at events, and generally doing much more than just looking good in adverts.'
A good example of this is the work that former England captain Martin Johnson has done with British Airways through Karen Earl Sponsorship. As an ambassador for BA's association with the English Rugby Football Union around the 2008 Six Nations, he has written a weekly blog on ba.com, attended hospitality events in the Twickenham West Car Park after games, and taken part in BA competitions in which fans can win the chance to meet him.
Wholesome and articulate
In every sport you can find young, good-looking winners to fit most brands. However, rugby players are uniquely suited to this type of PR work for several reasons. Firstly, Danny Cipriani's recent late-night trip to a nightclub notwithstanding, they stay out of trouble.
Stephen Bradley, board director for Sports Marketing & Sponsorship at Hill & Knowlton, says: ‘Rugby players are generally less likely to be found on the front pages of newspapers and therefore are able to maintain more of a family image.'
Ruth Shearn, MD at RMS PR, adds: ‘Rugby is a much more respectable game than football. Fans from opposing teams sit together and crowd trouble is non-existent. Brand managers like these messages.
Also, the game is utterly dependent on teamwork, rather than key individuals. This means players are well positioned to talk about motivation and leadership skills, and this is a growing area for them.'
More than anything, however, PROs talk about how articulate rugby players are compared with other professionals. Matt Jones, personality manager at Benchmark Sport, which manages Will Greenwood and Kyran Bracken, says: ‘Rugby players are intelligent, communicate well, and appeal to a wide variety of media.
When you have someone presenting your brand to journalists, you need them to understand and deliver key messages. By and large rugby players can do this very well.'
Andrew Ager, creative director of Pitch PR, agrees: ‘A rugby player will be switched on enough to understand what his sponsor is trying to achieve and will recognise the opportunities in interviews to communicate key messages.
The knowledge of the products they endorse far exceeds that which an average footballer will show, and the respect for a contract to promote a brand will usually be honoured fully.'
He also points out that rugby players tend to be more accessible than other sports people. For one thing they are paid much less than footballers, and so are more willing to take on PR work. Furthermore, Ager adds: ‘Access to players via agents is also a lot easier and there is a real willingness to assist sponsors.
Traditionally players have always honoured sponsor commitments at the end of club and international matches. In total contrast to football, it is not unheard of for players to have a pint in the bar with fans after a match.'
That said, any PRO who does decide to hire a rugby star will need to research the sport and the players carefully. Rugby players are more prone to injury, as Jonny Wilkinson has vividly demonstrated in the past five years. It would also be wise to think about whether the rugby players of the future will remain so well suited to PR work.
After the 2003 World Cup, Matt Dawson, Jason Robinson and Ben Cohen became household names alongside established stars such as Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Jonny Wilkinson, but there are not so many well known figures in the current squad.
Neil Hopkins, associate at Four Communications, points out a potentially more profound long-term concern: ‘Rugby players are articulate because traditionally they have been professionals who could make time to play the game. As the game becomes more professional, we might see better players, but fewer articulate brand ambassadors.'
For now, though, rugby players are hot property. As Hopkins at ENS concludes: ‘The first time someone books a sports star from us they usually want a footballer or an Olympian. They tend to be shocked by the cost, and on several occasions they have been disappointed with the appearance. More experienced bookers understand that rugby players perform effectively. For example, at a recent charity dinner in Manchester, all the rugby players showed up; sadly the same could not be said for even one of the football stars.'
BEN COHEN'S COLIEF CHARITY CAMPAIGN
World Cup winner, and first-time dad, Ben Cohen MBE has become involved with the Problem Shared campaign.
The campaign is sponsored by Colief Infant Drops, a product that provides relief to babies suffering from colic, along with Cry-sis, a charity that provides support to parents of babies who cry excessively.
Most parenting campaigns focus on mothers, so A Problem Shared aims to rise awareness of the issues new dads face.
Cohen is father to five-month-old twins, and he very publicly pulled out of the last World Cup to be with his wife Abby, during their birth. Furthermore, he actually used Colief for the twins' colic.
Sallyanne Jones, account director at Pegasus PR, which is handling the campaign's PR, says: ‘Ben's rugby physique made him a perfect choice for the picture-led launch of the campaign, which mimicked the iconic L'Enfant.
However, he has also provided us with information about his experiences of colic and presented to the media.
He has proved very popular with journalists, and has helped us achieve coverage in the Daily Mail, Hello, Reveal and The Sun online.'
RUGBY STARS AND THEIR BRANDS
Adidas works with Jonny Wilkinson, Danny Cipriani and Brian O'Driscoll.
Airwaves Lewis Moody recently had a full page in The Times promoting the chewing gum while handling massive spiders to cure his arachnophobia.
Canterbury Bryan Habana and Andrew Sheridan are among many rugby players who promote this sports brand.
Disney Thomas Castaignède and Will Greenwood promoted the DVD of movie Ratatouille.
EA Sports The games developer has used David Strettle, Mark Cueto, Tom Rees and Gavin Henson to promote its rugby games.
Heineken uses Michael Lynagh and Will Greenwood.
Jockey Dan Carter promotes the underwear brand globally.
Lexus Richard Hill works with this car manufacturer.
Moss Bros worked with the Welsh rugby team on the launch of a flagship store in Cardiff.
Guinness has worked with several players including Mike Tindall and Austin Healey.
O2 fans had the chance to stare out Tindall, Josh Lewsey and Tom Rees on a webcam. 184,985 fans visited the site.
Royal Bank of Scotland As sponsors of the Six Nations, the financial services company uses dozens of rugby players.
SJ Berwin Kyran Bracken works with this firm of solicitors.