SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Asia is not ready to host a Super Rugby franchise, the head of the ARFU told Reuters, with no union or sponsor in a position to underwrite the $100 million five-year cost of hosting the Southern Hemisphere competition's 18th team.
Asian Rugby Football Union president and Hong Kong Rugby Union chairman Trevor Gregory ruled out his city from bidding to join the league, which is run by South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and announced plans earlier this month to expand to 18 teams.
With an extra South African side joining the competition and a new franchise in Argentina from 2016, Asia was heavily tipped to take the final spot.
As much as he wanted that to be, Gregory said the sums just did not add up.
"Can you imagine a union having any liability for a five year contract that could have a $100 million (59.25 million pounds) price tag on it? That would bankrupt any union," Gregory told Reuters by telephone.
"I'm stepping down as chairman of Hong Kong in a couple of months, I wouldn't think that the new board have an appetite to risk the hard-earned money that has taken us 60 years to accumulate on a long shot, which is clearly what it is for us right now."
Gregory and HKRFU chief executive Vern Reid, formally with Super Rugby side Western Force, told Reuters there was "probably less appetite for Hong Kong in the African conference then there would be if the offer was to be in the Australian and New Zealand conference".
Reid cited numerous costs, saying the Perth-based Force travelled 68,000 kilometres to play in the competition last year and that the last Super Rugby expansion side, the Melbourne Rebels in 2011, had spent close to A$22 million (12.02 million pounds) in their first season after players charged a premium to move.
"We have had a look at it and knowing the costs, we are not ready to do that," Reid said of Hong Kong, the second ranked team in Asia according to the International Rugby Board rankings.
"We would be better to invest that money in the development of our own players and our own game, so that if another opportunity did arise in the future then we would be better placed to make that decision."
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew anticipated bids from Asia, North America and Southern Europe when announcing the latest expansion of the 15-team competition, which began with 12 sides in 1996 when rugby went professional.
Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan were quickly installed as the most likely candidates to host the new franchise.
Singapore have not ruled out a bid, with help from outside partners, but Gregory questioned whether Japan, aiming for a seventh Asian Five Nations championship title on Sunday, were interested.
The Japanese 'Top League', backed by local corporations, has grown into a thriving competition featuring some of the best players in the world.
"And for them, that is sacrosanct, they are not going to disrupt their league because that is the jewel in their crown of their domestic rugby," Gregory said, also pointing out Japan's economic plight and the demands they face as hosts of the 2019 rugby World Cup.
Gregory also pointed to the silence from Japanese sponsors since SANZAR announced their plan to expand and said history had shown finding investors for rugby in Asia is tough.
"The whole concept of getting a franchise up for the next five years, I don't want to pour cold water on it, I really feel it's a bridge too far, he said.
"We have a very small budget for running the whole of Asian rugby which is less than $2 million for 28 countries.
"Having to source the sponsorship for Asian rugby which I have had to do for the last six or seven years, I cannot see the money being available in Asia right now."
Reporting by Patrick Johnston