Why the future of rugby is in Asia
As Rugby World Cup 2019™ (RWC) final is just around the corner in Japan, we take a look at rugby’s roots in Asia and examine how the sport is winning the hearts of people across the region.
Rugby isn’t a sport you would necessarily associate with Asia but over a decade ago World Rugby confirmed that the continent was ready to host the world's third-biggest sporting event for the very first time. There is now interest in the sport outside of its traditional heartlands and a universal desire for this momentum in new regions to continue.
Tackling New Frontiers
After celebrating its 50th anniversary earlier this year Asia Rugby, the governing body for the sport in Asia, has lots to look forward to. All eyes are now on Japan for the first-ever Rugby World Cup™ in Asia then, just when it seems like things can’t get any better, Japan will also host the Olympics in 2020 which includes rugby sevens for the second time. Today, there are 31 member unions across Asia, stretching as far as Kazakhstan to Guam and even though the country rankings suggest otherwise, the region is a hotbed for rugby development.
Many people wrongly assume that rugby is not present or popular in Asia because most of the professional teams do not play within the upper echelons of the sport. In reality there is a strong and dynamic network of players and officials throughout Asia who leverage the values of rugby to instil social change. Recently, Asia Rugby rapidly increased rugby participation across nascent rugby nations, both at a grassroots and professional level. According to statistics by World Rugby, in 2018 there were over 1 million registered players across the region, a 33% increase on the previous year.
Project Asia 1 Million is a central pillar of World Rugby’s mission to grow the game locally and ensure Japan 2019 is the most impactful Rugby World Cup to date. This growth was largely driven by World Rugby’s development programme Get Into Rugby and acts as a gateway for young people to try, play and stay in the game.
A Game with Purpose
Rugby Unions throughout Asia have been very successful in positioning rugby as an inclusive sport that naturally offers a range of benefits. For example in India, a country most people wouldn’t associate with rugby directly, rugby is currently enjoying its highest participation levels and is actively played across 24 states. Through Get into Rugby, the India Rugby Union is working to make rugby accessible to all - levelling the playing field for women and disadvantaged individuals to benefit from the critical skills that rugby naturally develops. In India, women are not traditionally encouraged to play sport but this project is changing all that.
Thanks to grassroots initiatives supported by World Rugby, Asia Rugby and their sponsors, Laos is now the first country globally where female participation is higher than male participation, completely changing the traditional stereotypes that persist. Rugby initiatives are having a big impact on this developing nation - in 2010 there were just 300 players and now Laos boasts more than 3,000, the majority of these being women. Flagship events, legacy programmes and other initiatives mean that rugby in Asia is in good health and this is set to continue well into the future.
Could Asia provide the next rugby superpower?
Now that is the question! As participation increases, and as Asian teams continue to improve their performance on the world stage, rugby will naturally increase in popularity. World Rugby views Asia as one of its biggest growth markets for several valid reasons. Firstly, the financial opportunity is huge - China alone has committed $100 million to spend on the sport over the next decade and from a sponsorship perspective if rugby corners the right fan base brands will quickly come knocking. A 2018 Nielsen study found there to be more rugby fans in Asia than any other continent (112 million from a total of just under 800 million globally) and there is potential for this number to grow significantly if more Asian teams work their way up the rankings and into the top 25 and beyond (currently only Japan and Hong Kong are ranked this highly but South Korea isn’t far behind). Finally, the solid foundations of grassroots programmes in nascent rugby markets are building the health of the game and creating a perpetual pipeline of players for years to come.
But while rugby is making an impact, it will take some time for the developing rugby nations to compete at the level required in tournaments such as Rugby World Cup™. Japan of course made an impact at home this year and Hong Kong narrowly missed out on qualification in 2018. Aside from these two teams, and arguably Korea and Kazakhstan, Asia needs more time to develop talent and invest in rugby in order to compete on the world stage.
Whether national teams in Asia are performing to their full potential on the pitch or not, rugby maintains its position as a unique platform to instill values and support positive change throughout the region. The unique and compelling Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan is also definitely inspiring the next generation of players in Asia.