Asian Championship reaches its 40th birthday

(IRB.COM) Wednesday 22 April 2009
By Chris Thau
 Asian Championship reaches its 40th birthday
Korea secured the last of their four Asian Championship titles in 2002

As the top tier of the HSBC Asian Five Nations Championship is poised to kick off this weekend, one is tempted to look back to the days when the Asian Unions felt that the time had come to start playing each other on a regular basis.

Rugby has been played on and off by ex-pats and Army and Navy personnel throughout Asia from India and what is now Pakistan to Malaysia and the present day Singapore, as well as in Japan, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), China and Hong Kong.

The Japanese were among the first to start playing rugby on a regular basis after the game was introduced at Keio University in 1899, with Sri Lanka, where rugby became the main game in schools, following suit. Naturally, the game grew in isolation in the various countries until the 20th Century when a Sri Lankan team went on tour to India in 1909. 

The game grew in numbers and stature as it spread through schools and universities into the mainstream society in Sri Lanka, Japan, Malaysia and India. In 1926 Sri Lanka travelled to Madras to enter the famous All-India Tournament, while a year later Waseda University toured Australia, followed by the first ever Japan tour abroad with a seven-match venture to Canada in 1930. 

Pioneering tours

Though the first to tour Japan were the soldiers of the Welsh regiment in 1928, Japan became a touring destination, visited in succession by Canada and the Australian and New Zealand Universities during the 1930s. Similarly, Colombo was visited by the rugby team of the 2nd Leicester Regiment stationed in Madras, and after the formation of the Union in 1908 as well as teams from Australia and New Zealand on their way to Europe.

Since 1910, the main rugby competition in Hong Kong was between the Hong Kong Football Club, the Royal Navy and the Garrison, with exciting clashes against Shanghai until the 1930s and even Saigon until the 1950s.

But it was after the Second World War that the rugby exchanges intensified, with Japan, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka hosting both European and Antipodean teams, not to mention the pioneering Japanese tours to Canada, Australia and New Zealand during the 1960s. In 1951, the Hong Kong team played in Japan for the first time, followed by the formation of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union (HKRFU) in 1952.

As the Asian game expanded both in strength and numbers and with the air travel changing the parameters of touring, the contacts between Asian countries grew. In 1967 Hong Kong were invited by Thailand to replace Singapore who had pulled out of the 4th South East Asia Games held in Bangkok. Hong Kong selected a team and duly joined the tournament but, after defeating Malaysia 32-6 they lost in the final to the hosts 8-5.

Breaking new ground

According to legend the former Doshisha University prop and team manager Shiggy Konno, at the time Japan Rugby Union Secretary, Thailand Rugby Union Chairman Chaloke Komarakul and Vernon Roberts of the Hong Kong RFU were those who instigated the formation of the Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) and the launch of an annual all-Asia rugby tournament.

The three represented their Unions alongside five others – Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and the then Republic of China (Chinese Taipei) at a meeting in Bangkok on 15 December 1968, where the decision to form the Asian Rugby Football Union was taken and Japan’s Masoa Yukawa elected President with the following objectives:

  • To raise the physical and moral standards in the Asian region by education in the healthy pursuit of Rugby Football and to promote friendship among Asian countries.
  • To further the development and welfare of Rugby Football in Asia, irrespective of nationality, race, colour, sex or creed.
  • To hold an Asian Rugby tournament every year, which in 1970 was changed to two years.

Three months later the inaugural tournament was staged at Prince Chichibu Stadium in Tokyo with five participating teams – hosts Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Korea. In a spectacular final, Japan defeated Hong Kong 24-22.

The following year the second tournament was held in Bangkok with Hong Kong – coached by former Scotland and Lions captain Mike Campbell-Lamerton – hoping to avenge their narrow defeat of the previous year.  However Thailand begged to differ and after defeating Hong Kong 9-6, they reached the final only to lose 42-11 to the powerful Japanese team.

It was then decided to hold the Asian Rugby Football Tournament on a biennial basis. Japan won 15 of the 19 tournaments – Korea the other four with the last in 2002 – held until 2008, when the tournament morphed into the HSBC Asia Five Nations with its various divisions. Korea also finished as runners up to Japan 10 times, the Japanese four times, Hong Kong three times, with Thailand and Sri Lanka also winning one silver medal.

The Japanese retained their position as Asia’s number one side by claiming the inaugural Asian Five Nations title last year with victories over Arabian Gulf, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan and Korea. This year’s Top 5 – as the top tier is known – will see Singapore, the 2008 Division I winners, replace the relegated Arabian Gulf in the competition which runs from 25 April to 24 May, Asia’s newly established international Test window.

Promotion and relegation key

A key element of the ARFU’s strategic goal is creating a pathway for their Unions from 26 to one and as such promotion and relegation exists between the top three tiers. Arabian Gulf have already confirmed their return to the Top 5 in 2010 – which will determine Asia’s qualifier for Rugby World Cup 2011 – by winning the Division I tournament which took place in Dubai earlier this month and also featured Chinese Taipei, Sri Lanka and 2008 Division II champions Thailand.

Thailand will return to Division II in 2010 with their place taken by this year’s winner, be that China, hosts Malaysia, India or Pakistan from the tournament in Kuala Lumpur in early June. The ARFU have introduced a new tier – Division III – for 2009 from which there will be promotion, but no relegation in its first year.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Iran – winners of the three Regional tournaments which form the bottom of the Asian Five Nations pyramid in 2008 – will be joined by Guam in this new division, to be played in Manila at the beginning of July.

The final tier features three Regional tournaments, the first of which was won by Laos on home soil last month following victories over Brunei and Cambodia in Savannakhet.

The other Regional tournaments will take place in Uzbekistan in June and then Macau at a date still to be confirmed. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan will be joined by Kyrgyzstan and Asian Five Nations newcomers Jordan, while Qatar and Mongolia will play join the hosts in Macau.