March 5, 2008 / 5:32 AM / 12 years ago

INTERVIEW-Rugby-Japan potential Bledisloe Cup, Super 14 host

TOKYO, March 5 (Reuters) - Japan is being lined up as a Bledisloe Cup host in 2009 and could become the base for a new team in an expanded Super 14 competition.

The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) said initial talks with Japanese officials about bringing the Wallabies and New Zealand All Blacks to Asia’s top rugby nation had gone smoothly.

“We had our first preliminary discussions today. They were very positive,” ARU chief executive John O’Neill told Reuters in Tokyo on Wednesday.

“We are taking the jewel in the crown into an incredibly valuable market. It would not be an exhibition match. It would be a full-blooded test with the cup on the line.”

Australian and New Zealand officials announced earlier this week that Hong Kong will host the heavyweight Bledisloe Cup clash on Nov. 1 this year.

It will be the first time the two great southern hemisphere rivals have met in a rugby test outside New Zealand or Australia, except at a Rugby World Cup.

O’Neill, visiting Japan to back the country’s bid to stage the 2015 World Cup, outlined broader plans for the expansion of the game in Asia’s lucrative markets.

“We are looking to play a Bledisloe Cup game in Tokyo about Oct. 31 next year or early November,” he said. “But it’s not just lipservice. We are very serious about growing rugby in Asia.

“Of course the reasons are not entirely altruistic. We have had a very successful 12 years of the professional era but it’s obvious we have to grow in a larger consumer area.”

SOCCER DEFECTION

O’Neill was the architect of Australia’s defection from Oceania to the Asian Football Federation in 2006 during his spell as the country’s soccer supremo and wants rugby to follow the same blueprint.

“The reasons we moved out of Oceania into Asia were identical,” he said. “It was because of the economic power of Asia. We were moving into a much bigger market.

“We have watched England and France go from strength to strength in rugby on and off the field, so we know we need to grow in this region.”

Plans to increase the number of sides in the Super 14 competition, and to include a Japan-based team, are also on the agenda.

“The Super 14 has been expanded (from 12) and could be expanded again in the next few years,” said O’Neill. “We could well base a team in Tokyo, possibly as a joint venture because it would be very important to be competitive.

“It would perhaps be half Japanese, with Japan’s best players, and the other half foreign, predominately Australian.”

O’Neill added that the International Rugby Board (IRB) was behind his plans to take Bledisloe Cup games overseas and played down suggestions of a backlash from southern hemisphere fans.

“There have been some critics, more in New Zealand, about selling the farm,” he said. “But it has been well received. The IRB has been very supportive.

“They are desperate to grow rugby in these markets.”

Editing by Ossian Shine

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