Time for a rugby expansion rethink

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Rugby in Asia is progressing at a very pleasing rate. With the exceptions of Japan and to a lesser degree Hong Kong, the overall level of the game is pretty even relatively speaking.

However, it’s the likes of Japan and Hong Kong that in my opinion must prompt the need for the rethink.

Japan have yet to be really be pressured in the Asian Five Nations format. Hong Kong is their nearest rivals by a minimum of 30 points and that was on a good day for HK and a bad one for Japan.

More recently they have dispatched Kazakhstan by more than 60 and only yesterday humiliated the newly formed UAE side 111 -0 in Dubai. This disparity cannot continue if rugby in Asia is to ever aspire to a regionally competitive standard. Something must be done.

First of all, I’d like to congratulate Japan in particular as its clear for everyone to see their massive improvement over the last four years and in a perfect world they would move on from the Five Nations in which they have vastly outgrown into a higher more competitive competition for the sake of their developmental.

However, in this imperfect world they are currently confined to the Asian structures in place. So what to do? It would be unreasonable to expect Japan to lower its standards; it should be the exact opposite. The obvious answer is to elevate the rest of Asia at a far faster rate than at current. How? Competitions.

Previously I have advocated club competitions, however, on reflection and at least in the medium term, establishing regional championships within the continent to provide greater opportunities for national teams and unions to compete internationally under the watchful eyes of dedicated development officers assigned solely to the development of each individual region. My suggestions are:

Arab/Central Asian Championship – With the Arabian Gulf disbanding last season the opportunity now exists to create a regional championship to assist in the development of Arab/Central Asian rugby.

Running two pools and including states such as the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Iran, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Jordan, Pakistan etc. The IRB could provide each nation with at least five more opportunities to play international rugby.

The winner of each pool would then play off in a home and away format to determine the regional champion. This would tap into regional rivalries and provide them with a structure to build its grassroots works around.

South East Asian Rugby Championship – Once again split into two pools and aiming to provide at least five more international playing opportunities this championship would follower exactly the same format and structure as the Central Asian Championship. It would be reasonable to include Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Chinese Taipei, China, Guam, Indonesia, India (at a stretch) and even PNG in such a championship.

These two Championships would provide most of the Asian Nations with at least five Tests matches to add to the two or three they would already compete in with the current format. Keeping it regional would ideally keep cost down as much as possible.

But wait, there are two glaring omissions from my vision. Sri Lanka and South Korea require a different approach, mainly due to in one case geography and in the other pre-existing participation and structure. First with South Korea, as with what John Kirwan has suggested the SKRFU should be looking to gain access to the Japanese professional structures. Initially starting at the bottom and working their way up. By being exposed to higher level of competition the Korean national team would see a considerable rise in standard, something that has fallen for some time now.

Sri Lanka. With the second largest participation in Asia, Sri Lanka are a special case, one that involves direct development of their local structures without heavily relying on international competition. Rugby in very popular at Schoolboy level and is actually a reasonably popular spectator sport. However, they face challenges of maintaining those high participation levels into senior rugby. This will be the IRB’s main objective. To increase the articulation rate and elevate their top line championship (the Caltex Cup) to some sort of professionalism. Do this and Sri Lanka could emerge as a real force of Asian rugby.

A key component in this is as above mentioned is the installation of a corresponding development officer or officers to work exclusively within these regions. There sole focus will be to work with the unions in an information sharing role to raise the standards right across the board. They will also be responsible to ensure the implementation and execution of grassroots youth development initiatives.

John Kirwan has publicly stated that he and Japan are targeting both their Tonga and Canada pool match in the quest to automatically qualify for England thus opening the Asian seed they usually occupy. It’s a goal I believe they are very capable of achieving. This and the fact that Japan will host the 2019 event it is vital that the IRB develops the region well ahead of schedule to ensure whether or not an extra Asian side competes in England or Japan, they are competitive to the sake of the game.

An extra benefit from this would be that if successful it would provide a blueprint in which to apply to the Americas and Africa.

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