The excitement may be building ahead of some mouth-watering match-ups in this year’s Super Rugby Finals Series but the debate over future battle lines is set to dominate the headlines in the coming weeks.
SANZAR, the umbrella body representing South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, announced earlier this year that the competition would be revamped once more ahead of the 2016 season with three ‘new’ teams set to enter the fray. This expansion will not only see the re-introduction of the Southern Kings from South Africa but also the addition of a new team from Argentina and an ‘18th’ side from a yet-to-be-decided territory.
Expressions of interest in hosting the 18th side were invited and SANZAR are poised to announce a shortlist this week ahead of a full tender process with a final decision expected in September before it is sold to broadcasters.
It is understood that Japan and Singapore are leading the chase to join the Super Rugby party and their tussle could be just as enthralling as any match served up in race for the this year’s crown as they both bid to convince SANZAR that they have the infrastructure and financial resources to support a new franchise.
As hosts of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and with the country already boasting high level competition and a player pool that could fuel a new franchise, Japan would appear to be favourites to get the nod but they face a significant logistical hurdle.
The ‘18th’ team will play in one of two conferences based 8,400 miles away in South Africa and currently there are no direct flights between Johannesburg and Tokyo. SANZAR has already indicated that the travel burden on players will be a key factor in the decision process and so the epic journey required to travel to and from Japan may scupper hopes of getting a franchise off the ground.
Singapore may not boast the same kind of rugby heritage as their Asian rivals but perhaps crucially it is in the same time zone as Perth on Australia’s west coast and therefore much more travel-friendly.
Like Japan, its location also allows it to tap into a commercial market that SANZAR hopes will further fuel the development of their competition although question marks remain about both contenders’ ability to secure the financial backing to fund an initial five-year plan and also attract new sponsors.
The Singapore bid is set to be based on the existing Barbarians-style Asia Pacific Dragons side and while they may not have the domestic player pool offered by Japan or any intention to nurture talent within a nation currently ranked 58th in the IRB rankings, there are what amount to be promises to utilise and showcase talent from the Pacific Islands.
Such a move is sure to find favour not only with New Zealand and Australia, who have been accused of neglecting the Pacific nations while plundering their talent, but also the wider rugby fraternity that has long sympathised with their plight.
The South African Rugby Union are thought to favour Singapore with player welfare an understandable concern and reports suggest they are hoping to leverage the substantial TV rights revenue they bring to the table.
Latest reports also suggest that Singapore is also the preferred choice of the New Zealand Rugby Union given their existing commercial ties with Dragons owner Eric Series. However, agreement from all three SANZAR partners is required to rubber stamp any decision.
Perhaps sensing that a decision has already been made behind closed doors, Japan national coach Eddie Jones went on the offensive recently and labelled Singapore’s bid as “a joke” and he believes SANZAR will “lose all credibility” were it to go for that option.
Another key figure in this debate could be the International Rugby Board. Although the sport’s governing body has no direct influence on the future shape of either Super Rugby or the Rugby Championship, there is little doubt that they would welcome a decision that supported their own efforts to nurture the game in Asia.
IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset secured a second term on a ticket that promised renewed efforts to develop the game in Asia and the Americas and the region offers great potential in terms of raising the profile of the game, boosting playing numbers and commercial revenue.
Singapore clearly falls into this region but the IRB would surely prefer an expansion that would bolster their efforts to grow the game in Japan ahead of the staging of the World Cup and also help cement its legacy.
There can be little doubt that Japan have spearheaded the game’s growth in Asia. An ever-present at the Rugby World Cup, a seventh-successive Asian Five Nations crown was secured earlier this year and more recently they became the first Asian side to crack the top ten in the IRB world rankings.
But should Japan’s inclusion come at the expense of player welfare? The convoluted Super Rugby competition is far from perfect and the addition of ridiculous travel demands on some teams will do little to silence the competition’s critics.
Japan’s inclusion would be a logical step in their own development but the process that saw the 2011 Rugby World Cup hosting rights go to New Zealand when it appeared destined for the Far East illustrates that you don’t always get what you deserve.
Should Japan’s rugby credentials win out over Singapore? Or is Japan too far away from the other Super Rugby countries? Can the game really be expected to grow in Asia if Singapore fields a mercenary XV with no grassroots development?