SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The near-empty Singapore stadium in which Japan’s Sunwolves played out their latest Super Rugby defeat on Saturday was a stark reminder that developing the sport of rugby union across Asia was always going to be a tough task.
There was certainly beer-fuelled merriment among the 4,389 fans dotted around the 55,000-seater stadium, but their small number was sobering for the sport’s global chiefs as they look for an uptick in interest around Asia’s first Rugby World Cup.
Southern hemisphere rugby body SANZAAR had already dealt a hefty blow to those hopes on the day before the match when they served Asia’s only top tier professional club notice to quit Super Rugby at the end of the 2020 season.
A tearful Sunwolves chief executive Yuji Watase told reporters that his sense of failure was therefore broader than just the upset at having witnessed the 37-24 defeat to South Africa’s Lions - a 44th loss in 52 Super Rugby matches.
“We have the responsibility to expand rugby in Asia as a kind of leader in Asian rugby ... and that’s why we have played here (in Singapore),” Watase said.
“It is clear that this is going to be quite a kind of damage ... in terms of the promotion of rugby. Personally, I’m really sorry about it.
“We have to think about how to develop more and more young kids to play rugby ... Such kind of atmosphere is very important.”
He was not alone with Lions captain Malcolm Marx, the Springboks hooker, also bemoaning the impending loss of the Tokyo-based team after only five seasons in the competition.
“It’s sad that Sunwolves are leaving Super Rugby,” he said. “It’s an exciting brand of rugby that they play, they are a quality side. It’s actually very sad.”
The world’s most populous continent has long been touted as a market that could lead to explosive growth in the sport, which has always struggled to thrive outside its heartland of Britain, former British colonies and France.
Research commissioned by governing body World Rugby indicated Asia had more fans (112 million) than any other continent in the world, with 33 million fans of the sport in China and 25 million in India.
Outside of Japan, where the World Cup will be played on Asian soil for the first time later this year, the number of registered players is unimpressive, however.
Populous former British colonies like Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka dominate, along with the small financial hubs with large expatriate populations like Hong Kong and Singapore.
Terence Khoo, the president of Singapore Rugby Union and former captain of the national side, said the axing of the Sunwolves was a blow for fans and players alike.
“We lose the opportunity to watch a high level of performance up close,” said Khoo.
“What is equally important is that we’ve lost the opportunity to tap onto a high performance set up and use this to transfer technical expertise and knowledge to our coaches, officials and clubs.”
In neighbouring Malaysia, which was for the first time a stop on the Rugby World Cup trophy tour earlier this year, the impending exit of the Sunwolves was also seen as a bitter blow for the Asian rugby community.
“It’s disappointing,” said Marc Le, who has played for Malaysia and had professional contracts in Japan and New Zealand. “For at least some Asian nations, they have nothing to aspire to now.”
Reporting by John Geddie, Editing by Nick Mulvenney