At the end of the 2017 Super Rugby season, the Western Force found themselves axed. Abandoned by Rugby Australia, the Force found themselves in a dark place, until mining magnate Andrew Forrest appeared from the shadows.
The billionaire Sandgroper single-handedly funded Global Rapid Rugby, a new rugby competition, just to keep the Western Force playing rugby. After all, if you can’t join them, beat them.
Global Rapid Rugby wanted to set itself apart from the other leagues across the world and introduced wild law variations such as 70-minute games and nine-point ‘power tries’.
Despite these changes, the more interesting aspect of the competition was the teams. Global Rapid Rugby had a focus on growing the sport into Asia and the Pacific.
In 2019, GRR was contested between the Asia Pacific Dragons from Singapore, the Fijian Latui, Kagifa Samoa, the Malaysia Valke, and the South China Tigers from Hong Kong.
Before COVID-19 saw the end of the league in 2020, Kagifa was rebranded Manuma, and the AP Dragons were swapped with the China Lions, based in Shanghai, but playing out of Rotorua. Interestingly, with the exception of the Force, all teams were based in tier 2 or 3 nations.
As the Western Force were readmitted into Super Rugby AU during the pandemic and international travel came to a halt, the other teams were left to secure their own futures, which unfortunately saw Manuma Samoa players stranded in New Zealand for 104 days.
The Pacific Islands were fortunate, compared to their Asian counterparts.
While the Fijian Latui and Manuma Samoa have remained silent about their futures, the Fijian Drua from the NRC and Moana Pasifika will be joining Super Rugby in the near future with the financial support of World Rugby.
This will provide a much needed elite pathway for Fijian, Tongan and Samoan players, giving a huge boost for the region.
But what about the forgotten Asian teams?
Soon after the end of Global Rapid Rugby, the Malaysian Valke, who were associated with Currie Cup side Valke, went into receivership.
The South China Tigers have reverted into the Hong Kong national team with a focus on making it to the Rugby World Cup.
The China Lions and Asia Pacific Dragons have both expressed a desire to join Super Rugby, but that is unlikely with Super Rugby maintaining a Pacific-focused future.
For their own survival, these teams need to look past Oceania. There is little to be gained for the Asia-based teams to join Super Rugby in 2022 or beyond.
These teams would quickly realise they have been pushed into the deep-end. Letting the China Lions or the AP Dragons in would only replicate the Sunwolves’ performance, who only mustered nine wins in 67 games.
These Asian teams are also based in countries who have never played in the World Cup, and would not have the talent pool needed to create a competitive team, relying on foreign imports. Realistically, both these teams would make the Sunwolves look like the Crusaders.
Logistics across a multi-continent competition are a nightmare, too. There would also be longer travel times and costs to get a team from Shanghai to Suva, Christchurch or Melbourne.
This is why Super Rugby is now staying locally in Oceania. For their own best interest, teams in Asia need to forget about Super Rugby, and look to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Japan has the strongest rugby history in Asia, coupled with steady development of their players through a well-funded corporate competition.
These reasons have been the drivers of their lone success on the continent.
In 2022, the Japan Football rugby union and Top League will form a new domestic competition and structure, moving away from corporate ownership. Soon, in Japan there will be 25 teams spread across three leagues, complete with promotion and regulation similar to the English and French systems.
To keep rugby growing, any professional club teams based in Asia, outside of Japan, should seek to join the third tier of this new JFRU competition.
Logically, the Asian teams based out of Japan should participate in the bottom league first and work their way up, earning the right to play in the upper levels. These lower levels would also be more closely matched to their own ability.
Admitting these teams into the new Japanese competition would take away the logistical stress of having to organise a new competition for these smaller teams from tier 3 nations.
The countries’ respective unions would only need to fund a team, and not a model.
Realistically, these teams would likely be sub-national teams in the same way the South China Tigers were representative of the Hong Kong National Team in Global Rapid Rugby.
This would most likely be similar to the Currie Cup who had the Welwitschias from Namibia in the 2016-17 seasons, Jaguares XV in 2019, and post-COVID, a Georgian team.
If nations like Malaysia, Hong Kong, and South Korea were able to form a team to compete in Japan, their players would only improve with much-needed game time at more competitive levels.
While Japanese teams may not be thrilled with playing internationally in places like Hong Kong or Shanghai, it may not even need to be a long-lasting deal.
The JFRU could agree to allow these other Asiatic teams to play in the league for only a few years, incubating their talent. These other teams would bump up numbers in each division, as reportedly, the second division will only have seven teams and the third division, six teams.
Once newly-created Japanese teams are introduced to lower divisions to expand them, the likes of the China Lions and South China Tigers could be replaced and allowed to leave to form their own league after a few years.
Temporary inclusion would benefit these other Asiatic teams as they would have time to build a fan-base and financial structure to support themselves.
Perhaps we’ll see an Asian Super League, or the Pro14 of the East.
Japan could also benefit, too, by receiving broadcast revenue from their continental neighbours by showing their games.
4.6 billion people is a huge market that World Rugby wants to expand into, so perhaps World Rugby could even be tempted to help support teams as a means to grow the game in Asia, especially after the multi-million dollar attempt in China that showed little effect.
World Rugby could support their inclusion in Japan or help to create a league of its own similar to the Super Liga de Americana.
After Japan, the next best team is Hong Kong, who are realistically still a far way off from ever being a competitive team internationally.
If World Rugby are to change this, then a creative means will need to be found. A club competition is what Asia needs.
More players playing more games gives the players much more needed experience.
Global Rapid Rugby brought us teams from Malaysia, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore in an effort to grow the game and save the Western Force.
In a time when rugby in Asia was blossoming after a successful World Cup, COVID brought that to a halt.
Perhaps if COVID had never occurred then these Asiatic teams would still be playing each other.
Regardless of what happens next in their short history, it can be agreed that it would be a shame for these newly-created Asian teams to disappear before they ever got a chance to grow or help the game grow.