SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The lure of gold medals is driving unprecedented Asian interest in rugby sevens but Olympic inclusion is having a detrimental effect on the 15-man game in key markets like China, regional official Trevor Gregory told Reuters.
The Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) vice-president was in Singapore for a Rugby Sevens World Cup qualifying event in which Guam and Indonesia will make their series debuts over the weekend as the ever-expanding game shows no sign of slowing.
A top-three finish among the 12 nations, which includes Sri Lanka, Thailand, South Korea and Kazakhstan, will earn a place in the 24-team finals alongside New Zealand, Fiji and England in Moscow next year.
“I think it’s exciting times for rugby,” Hong Kong-based Englishman Gregory said, three years after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that sevens would be included in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games .
“I just hope that our Asian countries don’t lose sight of the big game.”
China, competing in the Singapore Sevens event, are one nation who appear guilty of only focusing on the reduced version of the game.
After suffering humiliating thrashings by Malaysia and Iran, they will play in the third tier of Asian international 15-a-side rugby next year and Gregory warned there was a real danger they could lose interest in the classic code.
“If you go to China and see the expansion of rugby sevens over there it is quite remarkable. A lot of people play, every province has teams. There were some there before (the IOC decision) but it has certainly gathered momentum,” he said.
”The real problem, though, is in terms of how the growth is happening is quite specific on sevens, and 15s is falling back.
”To see them getting relegated was disastrous and so whilst there is very much a growth push in China, it is hard to get it focused on anything but sevens.
“There’s a big danger (we could lose them) and nobody wants that to happen.”
Japan have been the stalwarts of Asian rugby but their heavy investment in the 15-a-side game, with a professional league attracting global stars like All Black Sonny Bill Williams, has only led to one win in 24 years of competing at the World Cup.
Played by seven players on a full-size pitch for seven minutes each half, the shorter version of the game, where speed tends to be the key attribute to success, grants the novice Asian teams a better chance of competing at the highest level.
The world governing body the International Rugby Board (IRB) though have been eager to stress that all nations commit to putting structures in place to develop 15-a-side rugby.
One requirement, Gregory said, was that countries had a four-team league, but with resources and numbers low in certain areas that is not always possible.
”Vietnam wanted to come in amazingly before the Olympics but the reason we couldn’t grant them was their 15s program wasn’t really in place.
“Four should be very simple but for some it is still a challenge... Lebanon, Jordan,” Gregory said, also mentioning Qatar and Afghanistan as other examples.
”That’s why the membership criteria has got to be addressed and whether I suggest there might be a sevens one or another one.
“If we had a country coming in that wouldn’t have played rugby at all but they come in just because they want to play sevens for now with a hope that they’ll develop to one day want to play 15s we shouldn’t discourage it.”
The ARFU now had 28 member nations, Gregory said, with more hopefully to come but when asked how you stop them from focussing only on sevens, he was frank in his reply.
“You don’t in real terms, you can’t stop anything that is going to happen. Even the IRB are saying they might have to look at memberships and having full members and sevens members.”
Gregory, though, said the 15-a-side game, which struggles for competition with only 10 tier one nations, would never be replaced.
“It generates 96-97 percent of all funds that the IRB derives every year, so no matter how big the sevens gets at the moment, all the sevens is being funded by 15-a-side money,” the Yorkshireman said.
“So there is no way people won’t preserve the top flight 15-a-side game.”
Editing by John O'Brien