The future of rugby in Asia

The Union President

Aga Hussain, President, Asia Rugby

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When it comes to the future of rugby in Asia, there are three issues we must contend with: finance; popularity, in terms of awareness and participation; and governance.

Finance

Lack of money in the game in Asia is the main challenge to doing what we really want to do and grow the game sustainably. While genetics mean that an Asian union will probably never win the highest honours in our collision sport and the primary form of the g ame, contact fifteens, the game will most likely be subsumed by non-contact ‘rugby’, which will be prevalent across the region in twenty years’ time.

In terms of governance and administration, lack of finances also means that it is impossible for National Governing Bodies (NGB) to recruit and retain professional, competent, adequately qualified, full-time administrators who are up to date with modern business trends. A number of NGBs are still operating in the outdated 1970s mind-set, month to month, crisis to crisis, with the same elected individuals recycling hats to stay in ‘power’, instead of the unions growing in the 21st century as SMEs. It remains to be seen whether the recent stepping down of former Japan Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, a doyen of rugby,  as honorary chairman of the Japan Rugby Football Union will be a watershed moment, not just for the JRFU but for unions across Asia, when Mori-San said, “younger people must (be allowed to) run the union”. Contrast this to Tier One unions with money, where professional administrators such as CEOs and directors of professional rugby are often the most prominent voices, with staff beneath them. Presently, Hong Kong is our only union with such a professional business structure.

Popularity, awareness & participation

Engaging millennials and Gen X youngsters is of course key, but will they be players (and future coaches and referees etc.) or just fans of the game? Probably the latter. While some unions across Asia have improved their capability in the last few years with Asia Rugby’s assistance, many don’t have the resources to have, for example, a digital/social media manager or presence. This then hampers attracting a younger rugby community and meaningful sponsorship in the digital age.

At our Regional Association international competitions level, we have found that sponsors are no longer interested in anything below the Asia Rugby Men’s Championship. Our competitions instead are for the most part amateur, recreational, social level player competitions, which don’t have high figure social media hits or TV eyeballs to attract sponsors or significant amounts of money. In short, again because of lack of money in the game, outside of Japan, and to a limited extent Hong Kong and Korea, the lack of a professional player pathway or domestic competition in Asian unions means that Rugby as a potential professional career is not a realistic option. Outside of Japan, there are precious few readily recognisable Asian role models in domestic, professional rugby for Asian youngsters to aspire to. That said, the Philippines does have some local, amateur rugby stars in its voracious social media space.

In wanting to grow the game and increase awareness and participation, the lessons to be learnt from the UK’s experience in the past month with two very contrasting sports (in their stage of development and the perceived interest in them) are truly stark and show just how important Free to Air (FTA) accessibility is for us.

Women’s Football – FTA 

– Over twelve million viewers for the World Cup semi-final, the largest TV audience for any event in the UK this year, more than the Champions League final. 

Cricket World Cup – Sky (pay TV)

Dismal TV following of only a few hundred thousand despite:

a) Cricket being supposedly a top, main stream sport in UK;

b) England going into the tournament as favourites; and

c) Cricket World Cup actually being played on home territory.

As a result, many commentators are now openly saying that cricket is a dying game in England, a place where previously it was seen as the bastion of society.

There is very little rugby available FTA across Asia, which therefore incredibly hinders awareness of the sport. However, while having more international and professional club rugby on FTA TV will expose millions to see and hopefully be fascinated by our sport, it will also show that rugby (certainly professional men’s fifteens and Sevens World Series/Olympics level sevens) is a technically challenging sport for big, 100kg-plus, Anglo-Saxon and Pacific Island men in Europe and the Southern Hemisphere and this will drive the thinking at school age, mass participation level across Asia, that contact rugby fifteens may be too aggressive, hazardous and complicated, and certainly there is virtually no chance of an Asian country ever winning the Rugby World Cup. 

Asian parents in countries without a national social security system may also be reluctant to let their (sometimes only) future bread-winning child engage socially to play a contact sport where there is a risk of (potentially serious) injury. While player welfare must always be our top priority, more needs to be done to positively promote the myriad advantages of the game in order to combat the negative comments about possible injuries. Otherwise, non-contact then becomes more prevalent. In short, unless contact rugby is ‘forced’ onto children at school and through programmes such as Get Into Rugby or mini and youth opportunities where parents want to be involved, mass participation, non-contact forms of the game may eventually dominate. One area for possible consideration to level the international playing field in our contact sport may be weight category competitions, including world cups, such as under 80kg.

The lack of commensurate numbers of facilities/pitches, coaches and referees will be a problem for large growth generally, whether in contact or non-contact. Whilst World Rugby simplified the Laws somewhat in 2017, the (fifteens) game is still too technical and the law book too complicated and daunting to attract enough new match officials to cope with exponential growth in contact player numbers.

Governance

We currently operate with a model where a central body oversees all matters across the whole of the vast Asian continent from Jordan in the west to Guam in the east; and from Mongolia in the north to Indonesia in the south. Our unions are very different in culture and languages; and many are in widely contrasting stages of development: with the older, more mature unions based along the eastern border of the region, and younger, aspirational unions wanting to spring up, particularly in west Asia. 

Asia Rugby therefore needs to consider how it can best help its growing membership and this may well be by moving to a more devolved governance model where sub-regions (Central/East/South/South-East/West) evolve and assume increasing responsibility for matters within their own domain.

The future for rugby in Asia can be bright, but to make it a success we have to increase awareness; improve the amount of money coming into the game; and give our members a stronger say in matters that affect them directly, while at the same time preserving the interests of the original founder members. It then all boils down to a question of  ‘quantity v quality’, and the rugby communities of our unions deciding what domestic/international rugby product they wish to produce. 

 
OpinionSimon Campbell