Is rugby pushing into Asia, or just Japan?
Japan might have won the right to host the 2019 rugby World Cup on its platform of bidding “for Asia”, but whether the rest of the region benefits remains to be seen.
Part of Japan’s plan included allocating some pool matches to Hong Kong, home to the world’s biggest Sevens tournament, and Singapore.
The rationale was that it would help cultivate new fans, boost revenue and create business opportunities.
But the Japanese union’s vice president Fumio Wada now says this may be reviewed.
“Hong Kong is well experienced. Singapore is ideally located to draw spectators from Australia and New Zealand, but it is very hot,” Wada said.
“We have included Hong Kong and Singapore in order to promote rugby in Asia. But there is a very cooperative view that they may be excluded if necessary.”
The International Rugby Board’s general manager for Asia, Jarrad Gallagher, said Japan winning the hosting rights was a reward for its persistence, and he hoped it would benefit the whole region.
“The most important thing for Asia is to show the world that Asia can hold something like this,” he told AFP.
“I’m not sure about Singapore and Hong Kong at the moment but part of the appeal of the Japanese bid was that it had an Asian feel, so I’m sure they would want to do it.
“But it’s a long way off and the nuts and bolts haven’t been sorted out. Regardless, it will be a good showcase for the sport.”
Hosting a major tournament can create a lasting legacy.
In 2002, Japan and South Korea jointly held the football World Cup and it led to better sports facilities, more enthusiasm for the game and several high-profile transfers by their leading players to European clubs.
Rugby chiefs meanwhile made no secret of their hope that awarding the tournament to Asia would help secure the sport a berth at the 2016 Olympics.
But while there will be economic spin-offs from having the rugby World Cup in Japan, and possibly Hong Kong and Singapore, the competitiveness of the sport itself still lags far behind that in Europe, South Africa and Oceania.
Japan is the continent’s highest ranked nation at 14 and was the only Asian team to qualify for the last World Cup in France, where they failed to make it past the group stages.
It highlighted the gulf between them and the world’s best.
The IRB’s Gallagher said the plan was to have at least one or two other Asian teams competitive within eight years.
Efforts to improve standards in Asia saw the introduction of the Asian Five Nations in 2008. Last year, the tournament pitted teams from Japan, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, South Korea and Singapore.
Japan won with Singapore relegated and the Gulf promoted.
Ian Bremner, chief executive of the Singapore Rugby Union, called the decision to bring the World Cup to the region “huge for Asian rugby”.
But despite Japan’s bid being called “A Tender for Asia”, he too has reservations about whether games in Singapore and Hong Kong will materialise.
“Japan has been encouraged by the IRB to host the tournament in their own territory and should they wish to go beyond that, they must provide compelling reasons for the inclusion of Singapore and Hong Kong,” Bremner told AFP.
“So I think we might still have a little way to run on this.”
Nevertheless, Bremner said the decision to bring the World Cup out East could only be positive for the region.
“The game in Asia is going through a great growth spurt at the moment and while the growth won’t be the same as that experienced by football, all the unions in Asia are experiencing growth,” he said.
“The World Cup will help showcase the game in a great way for young people and we hope to build programs around that.
“It wouldn’t just be about one-off games [in Singapore and Hong Kong], we want to get the community involved as well to leave some legacy.”
Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman Trevor Gregory said handing the tournament to Japan was “a major moment in the development of rugby globally”.
“It will help open new markets for rugby and bring new audiences to the game in Asia. It will provide a major boost to rugby in the region, including Hong Kong and China,” he told reporters.—AFP