While Northern Hemisphere eyes were glued to a captivating and compelling series of autumn internationals, a new competition south of the equator got the thumbs up from World Rugby.
“Rapid Rugby” is the brainchild of Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, the Aussie mining billionaire and the Western Force’s most ardent fan who pushed back when his side was squeezed out of Super Rugby last year. He is the driving force and the financial clout behind Rapid Rugby, which is scheduled to start in 2019 and will run from February till June, in tandem with, but one level below, Super Rugby.
Forrest is reportedly worth something in the region of £3 billion so he can well afford the stated winners’ prize of Aus$ 1 million (£560,000).
There are plans for eight teams in all, with sides from Singapore, the South China Tigers from Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Fiji, Samoa and Perth’s Western Force. One other entry – rumours suggest it might be Hawaii – has yet to be disclosed and yes, I have already volunteered to carry their bags.
The teams will play 14 rounds of matches with a total of 56 games plus some playoff matches. Anzac veterans Matt Giteau and Dan Carter, both pictured above right, have both been mentioned as potential players although neither man has signed up just yet.
The commercial contracts are being dealt with by Forrest’s own company from Australia, but the actual nuts and bolts of the operation is being run by an off-the-shelf management company called “REAL” which is based in Hong Kong.
REAL is 100 per cent owned by the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) and it is run by former Glasgow and Scotland scrum-half Sam Pinder who reports to HKRU chief executive Robbie McRobbie – another Scot, although you may be ahead of me here. Pinder has delivered Hong Kong’s famous sevens tournament for the last three years so he has some pedigree.
“We were not going to get involved in anything like the breakaway Kerry Packer cricket league,” says McRobbie, home in Scotland for a holiday last week.
“We have the backing of World Rugby, and most of the unions from which the competing teams come have already signed up and we are confident that everyone will get on board.
“We are aiming to make the game less set-piece orientated and increase the ball in play time, more running rugby, more excitement.
“But we also want to make the entire match-day experience much more exciting. That is already improving with the fireworks and all that stuff, but we think we can do better.”
Rapid Rugby is trialling various law changes, which are as follows:
1. Matches will last 70 minutes with two 35-minute halves.
2. A restricted number of rolling substitutions will be allowed.
3. Teams cannot kick straight into touch, even from within their own 22-metre line.
4. Tries scored from inside the attackers’ own 22 will count for nine points with no conversion.
5. Penalties will be worth just two, rather than three points.
McRobbie is an optimistic character, he needs to be given that February deadline which he concedes is “challenging”. He is at pains to explain that Rapid Rugby is not attempting to reinvent the wheel. He feels that there is no one issue that can make the game more accessible, but he does insist that this is “a good platform to try out lots of things”.
“Even Andrew Forrest doesn’t pretend that he has one magic solution to all the game’s problems,” says the Scot. “But we hope to find the formula for the most compelling game of rugby available.
“The World Cup in Japan next year is huge for us growing the game in Asia, which is one of the main reasons for getting this off the ground. Japan are several steps ahead of us [Hong Kong], and we are ahead of Malaysia and Korea, but the World Cup should give Asian Rugby a big boost. And with Rapid Rugby we hope to be a catalyst for bigger things.”