HONG KONG — What began as an effort to keep alive an Australian team that was bounced from the elite Super Rugby league has become an experiment that organizers hope will revolutionize the sport and enhance its popularity across the Asia-Pacific region.
Global Rapid Rugby is the brainchild of the Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest, an avid supporter of the Western Force, a franchise based in Perth that, along with two weaker South African teams, was culled from Super Rugby after the 2017 season to streamline and balance the league.
Though skeptics say the project is mostly an outgrowth of Forrest’s pique at what happened to the Western Force, he said he views it as an opportunity to advance the game he loves.
“Like all sports, rugby needs to evolve,” he said in a video interview when the first plans for Global Rapid Rugby were announced last autumn. “The modern sports public is spoiled for choices and demands easily digestible, fast-paced action.”
Plans to put a full, eight-team, home-and-away schedule were derailed by the difficulty of putting everything together in the same year that Japan — one of the countries expected to have a franchise — was hosting the Rugby World Cup. Instead, Global Rapid Rugby has organized a scaled-down Showcase Series of 14 matches featuring the Western Force and teams from five Asia-Pacific countries.
The first match will pit the Western Force against a world all-star team under Australia’s former national team coach, Robbie Deans, in Perth on March 22.
To fulfill Forrest’s vision, new rules are aimed to speed up the game and make it more entertaining for fans. Matches have been reduced to 70 minutes from the traditional 80. Also, teams will be awarded an automatic nine points for a “power try” scored from a move that starts from deep in its defensive red zone — behind the 22-meter line. Under conventional rules, a try is five points with a chance for a two-point conversion, for a total of seven points.
Penalty goals will count for two points instead of three.
The changes in rules are expected to de-emphasize kicking as a defensive tactic and provide greater incentive to keep the ball in play and score tries. Based on a few experimental matches under the new format, it’s been estimated that the ball will be in play some 30 percent longer than in a typical match under conventional rugby union rules.
“It’s a format that should appeal to people not steeped in rugby tradition,” Robbie McRobbie, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Rugby Union said last week at an event unveiling the South China Tigers, a franchise based in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Rugby Union will manage the new league.
McRobbie said that some of the concepts behind the new league were inspired by the success of the shorter, faster sevens format of rugby, though he stressed that rapid rugby is not a hybrid. But it does bring together many of the elements that make sevens rugby an appealing spectacle, especially the emphasis on speed.
“We’re big believers in speed,” McRobbie said.
“With the success of getting sevens into the Olympics, sevens as a format has exploded in the region,” he said, in part because being made an Olympic sport brings funding to many countries.
In addition to the Western Force and the Tigers, teams from Singapore, Malaysia and the rugby-mad island nations of Fiji and Samoa will be involved. When the full league gets underway in 2020, teams from Japan and Hawaii are expected to be added, with even further expansion expected in the future.
Organizers also plan to produce tight, 90-minute game telecasts and are negotiating with regional broadcasters. Matches would be streamed live on the Global Rapid Rugby website.
Forrest and the head of rugby for Global Rapid Rugby, Matt Hodgson, a former Western Force star player and captain and Australian national team member, have been recruiting top international players to ensure high-quality rugby for the project.
The Hong Kong-based franchise unveiled a couple of gems last week, most notably Tom Varndell, a speedy wing from the Leicester Tigers of the top English league, Premiership Rugby. Varndell, 32, is the league’s all-time leading try scorer and a player who is widely considered a world-class finisher. After playing for three months in Hong Kong, he will return to Leicester.
“It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down,” Varndell said last week. “I’m excited about the way the Asian game is going. Sometimes the game in the Premiership can be turgid and quite slow for the fans, and with this new format there should be more focus on the skills and the speed.”
Samisoni Viriviri, one of the stars of Fiji’s gold-medal winning team at the inaugural rugby sevens at the 2016 Olympics, said he was looking forward to playing for the Tigers because of his success in the World Rugby Sevens Series. That annual tournament in Hong Kong, played every April, is considered a highlight for players and fans.
Viriviri, 30, was the winner of the World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year award in 2014, and like Varndell is a speedy wing in the 15-man game who should thrive in the rapid rugby format.
“I always loved playing in Hong Kong,” Viriviri said. “It is like playing at home for Fijian players and it is always a great experience to come here, and I hope that the fans will enjoy what we are doing this season.”
Forrest wants to expand opportunities in top-level rugby with a focus on the large populations in China and India and on the island nations of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, where rugby is the most popular sport but where talented young players leave to play the game in places like Australia and New Zealand because of a lack of resources at home.
In his video interview, Forrest said he wanted Global Rapid Rugby to have a “strong community benefit,” which helps explain why the Fiji and Samoa franchises were a high priority.
“In places where outstanding young people, both boys and girls, men and women, are often forced to move away from their heartland, their homeland, to reach their potential, this competition will help them stay,” Forrest said. He said players from the region “are, in many ways, the game’s future.”
The South China Tigers franchise is also seen as a way to help grow top-level rugby in mainland China, where Forrest hopes to eventually base a team. The Tigers have signed two members of China’s national team: Liu Junkul, a wing, and fullback Ma Chong, China’s captain in both the seven- and 15-man formats.
Ma and Liu are said to be the first mainland Chinese players to play professionally in an international club-based tournament.
An important step for Global Rapid Rugby was securing the approval of World Rugby, the international ruling body for rugby union. Forrest and Hodgson, his director of rugby, stressed that despite the radical rule changes, Global Rapid Rugby is not a rebel league and does have a green light.
“World Rugby and its member unions, Global Rapid Rugby and its founder Andrew Forrest all share the same vision, to develop the sport in one of the fastest growing parts of the planet,” Hodgson said in an emailed comment relayed by Mark Doran, the league spokesman. “That said, the World Rugby Council wouldn’t have supported the concept if it didn’t stand up to very close scrutiny.”
World Rugby’s chief executive, Brett Gosper, has said that he favors anyone who puts money into developing rugby.
“If someone comes along with a checkbook and wants to develop the game in areas, in particular where we need that development,” Gosper told The West Australian newspaper in September, “and I’m thinking across parts of Asia which Mr. Forrest has in mind, then that’s of interest to us.”
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