WELLINGTON (Reuters) - China has emerged as the new frontier for rugby expansion with the privately organised Global Rapid Rugby announcing their latest team will be a joint venture with a New Zealand provincial side and the China Rugby Football Association (CRFA).
The Shanghai-based China Lions will join the Global Rapid Rugby (GRR) competition this season alongside the Perth-based Western Force and teams in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Fiji and Samoa.
The Lions will be a joint-venture between the CRFA and the Bay of Plenty rugby union, who won promotion last year to the top tier of New Zealand’s provincial competition.
GRR was created by Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest after the Force were dumped from Super Rugby by Rugby Australia following the 2017 season. GRR played an exhibition season in 2018 before its first competitive tournament last year.
Bay of Plenty Chief Executive Mike Rogers said the joint venture with the Lions would provide a further pathway into professional rugby for New Zealand players but also help develop the game in China.
“There is massive potential in China,” he told Reuters. “You just have to look at their women’s sevens team who have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics and won two games in Hamilton last week.
“The men’s teams are also improving ... Rapid Rugby also gives them an opportunity to play.”
Rogers said the agreement with the CRFA had been “two to three years” in the making and they had made numerous visits to China to discuss how they could help develop the game.
Once they had come to agreement with the CRFA, Bay of Plenty then approached GRR about entering a team in their competition.
His union had full support of Super Rugby’s Waikato Chiefs, of which they are minority owners, and New Zealand Rugby (NZR) to enter the joint venture, Rogers added.
NZR has a memorandum of understanding with GRR to help them develop the competition, he said, and the Lions would enable his union to develop players who had not been granted Super Rugby contracts.
New Zealand has about 175 full-time professional players spread amongst five Super Rugby teams.
There are 14 semi-professional sides, like Bay of Plenty, that feed into that competition, although many Super Rugby players also play provincial rugby.
Rogers said there were obvious commercial opportunities in China, which he hoped rugby would be able to benefit from as the sport grappled with a congested marketplace and greater demand for players from other professional competitions.
Organisers were well aware of the threat of the coronavirus outbreak in China and they would liaise with health and government officials about the risks ahead of the competition starting, Rogers said.
Super Rugby begins later on Friday, while GRR kicks off on March 13, with the final in Perth on June 6.
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Lincoln Feast.