By Rich Freeman
Asian Rugby Football Union president Trevor Gregory is hoping the spirit of Rugby will help spread the Game in the vast continent.
"We have 28 member nations of which 16 are full IRB members. We also have four more countries set to join," he explained. "And then of course there is the Olympic factor," Gregory said from Hong Kong, where he has lived for the past 32 years.
“And the one thing that binds them all is that spirit of Rugby and that sense of community.”
“With all the cultures, languages and religions we have, there are a lot of challenges. But Rugby transcends them all. Look at Australia where a lot of the clubs are based on race. Rugby has a spirit that comes naturally.”
“I was at a mini-rugby tournament here in Hong Kong today and it was great to see the kids applaud the opposition and respect the referee. Those traditions must be preserved and spread throughout Asia."
Work starts now
Home to 60 per cent of the world's population and 80 per cent of the planet's youth, Asia has just six per cent of the world's Rugby playing population. But with Japan set to host Rugby World Cup 2019, Gregory believes the continent has a great opportunity to see a real boost in playing numbers – though he says the work must start now.
“We have to increase the awareness of the Game so that participation levels go up. We need to get TV access so people in Laos, for example, can see the icons of the Game play at the highest standard. I want Asians to have Rugby heroes.”
There are some who argue that Asians will never be able to compete physically, but Gregory dismisses that.
“Some of the world's best players are not that big. They are just very skilful, well-trained and highly motivated. There are no reasons why Asians cannot play at that level. We have people of every size in this continent and there is always a place for any physique, be it Sevens or Fifteens.”
Gregory says the inroads made by the NBA and NFL in countries such as China and the Philippines show the impact sportsmen can have as role models.
Get Into Rugby
“They get to see NBA games every week and know all the players. But they don't know any Japanese Rugby players," he said referring to the most successful side in the continent.
“They need to be able to watch them and see how they are competing with the best sides in the world.”
Gregory is hopeful that this year will see Asian Rugby continue its expansion of recent years.
“We have 28 member nations of which 16 are full IRB members. We also have four more countries set to join,” he explained.
"And then of course there is the Olympic factor.”
“We need people to play with an oval ball, no matter how and get into Rugby, whether it’s Sevens or Fifteens. Look at cricket. The Indian Premier League is a US$2 billion industry. But it creates awareness of the game and you just had a world record crowd for a test match in Australia.”
Asia buzzing by 2019
One of his first actions as ARFU president was to create a rule that at least one member of the 12-person executive committee must be a woman.
“Women in Asia have a huge influence on children, whether it is as teachers or mothers. So we need to get them interested. We have seen a big increase in the number of female players but only in a few countries.”
Gregory is proud that the IRB has described ARFU as a model union but he admits that they have been victims of their own success.
With so many countries playing it has now become difficult to host the Asian 5 Nations tournament in its current form within the established windows. As a result, the tournament will be restructured from 2015 in order to make it more competitive and to align with the IRB performance bands.
“We need to bring a performance ethic to Asian Rugby if we are to have any chance of having a second team at Rugby World Cup 2019,” Gregory said.
And with that it was back to preparing for the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy that Hong Kong will host in April and which features two Asian sides for the first time.
“We want to have Asia buzzing by 2019 and for that to happen we have to start now.”
This feature forms part of our Around The Regions series exploring the game beyond its traditional heartlands. Do you have an interesting story to tell about Rugby around the world? Let us know by emailing email@example.com.
By Rich Freeman