Back in 2016, a major revolution was afoot with the expansion of Super Rugby to 18 teams across six countries, four unions, both hemisphere’s and numerous time zones. The convoluted system incorporating four conferences was too hard to comprehend and player fatigue due to frequent flyer mileage was a factor that was difficult to manage. Micromanagement saw the teams culled to 15, but this is also seen as too cumbersome and a new 14 or 15-team competition will begin after the current broadcast deal expires next year; starting in 2021.
I remember in 2009 on the Gold Coast talking with then Japanese coach and All Black legend, John Kirwan. I brought up the idea of having a Japanese based Super Rugby franchise, to which Jk said, “No-way, impossible, the company teams in Japan are way too powerful“. In Australia, we could see the merit of a Japanese team with the time-slot 1 hour behind Eastern Standard Time wedged between the Western Force matches in Perth.
“No-way, impossible, the company teams in Japan are way too powerful“.
Fast forward to 2019 and another All Black legend, current Queensland Reds coach, Brad Thorn. He’s come out strongly supporting the Sunwolves. After last Saturday’s match at Chichibu-no-Miya Stadium in Tokyo saying, “Look at that game today, look at the Sunwolves this season, they’ve been outstanding. It’s so good for rugby in Japan, look at the crowd. It would be disappointing and sad if Sunwolves were no longer part of it.”
Unfortunately, it’s official that from the Super Rugby 2021 season the Sunwolves will no longer be a part of the competition. In the words of SANZAAR CEO Andy Marino, “The decision to further consolidate the competition format to a 14-team round robin was not taken lightly. It has involved some detailed analysis and a thorough review of the current and future rugby landscape, tournament costs, commercial and broadcast considerations and player welfare in line with our Strategic Plan.”
Maybe John Kirwan was right, as sources have inferred that the JRFU never really liked the concept of the Sunwolves. This view was even voiced to SANZAAR by the JRFU as Marino reiterated, “SANZAAR was advised by the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) in early March that they would no longer be in a position to financially underwrite the Sunwolves future participation post 2020. The future of the Sunwolves will now be determined by the JRFU which has determined that Super Rugby no longer remains the best pathway for the development of players for the national team.”
There’s a lot of issues to be sorted out, with finances being a major concern, along with the disruption to the Top League season in Japan. Moving forward, it’s time to have a good chat with Andrew Forrest about becoming a part of Global Rapid Rugby.
For those heading to the Rugby World Cup this year in Japan your journey starts this Saturday on the Gold Coast. The Japan Community of Queensland Inc. cordially invite you to immerse yourself into Japanese food, culture and the people at Albert Waterways Community Centre in Broadbeach from 10am to 5pm. Proudly supported by the Japanese Consulate in Brisbane and Brisbanerugby, this is your first step of the incredible journey for the World Cup to be hosted outside of a ‘traditional‘ rugby nation.
(yon-nen ni ichi-do jyanai. Isshou-ni ichi-do da.)
The catch cry for this year’s World Cup is, “Not every 4 years. Once in a lifetime.” Basically meaning that this will be the ONLY time in your lifetime to experience such an event in Asia.
Japan has a proud history of rugby dating back to 1889, when Edward Bramwell Clarke, an instructor in English language and literature at Keio University at the time, began teaching rugby together with fellow Cambridge alumnus Ginnosuke Tanaka. Enthusiasm for rugby grew in Japan, led mainly by the university and high school students. University rugby became increasingly popular because of the top teams from Waseda, Keio,Meiji and DoshishaUniversities, peaking between the 1980s and early 1990s. From 2016 the Tokyo based Sunwolves entered the Super Rugby competition and played a very competitive match against the Queensland Reds last weekend in Tokyo, narrowly losing 34-31 in the final play.
Some Queensland Reds and Super W players will be on hand around 2pm for autographs and some rugby fun. We are very privileged to have a Japanese player from the Women’s Reds Team, Asako-chan, as well to demonstrate the pathways open to those that persevere, “Fight-o” in Japanese.
In late October I made my way over to the Land of the Rising Sun on a sabbatical to try to really comprehend how rugby is growing in Japan and the fanfare and excitement created around #RWC2019.
My first impressions in Tokyo were that plans were well underway to host the third major global sporting tournament and a buzz was growing amongst the Japanese people. However, I was somewhat delusional inside the bubble of the rugby going public in that first week bookended by the Bledisloe 3 match in Shin-Yokohama on October 27th and the Japanese playing the All Blacks in western Tokyo the week after on November 3. The bubble I refer to was being invited to functions by rugby aficionados in Tokyo from former players of All France, members of the Japanese Rugby Magazine and rugby people at Yokohama Country & Athletic Club.
With my PA, Alisa Okawa, I attended the Third Bledisloe Match between the Australian Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks on Saturday, after arriving the day before, at the cavernous Nissan Stadium in Shin Yokohama. Location of the Football World Cup final in 2002 hosted by Japan and South Korea the 72,327-seat stadium attained a record attendance for an international rugby match in Japan with over 46,000 fans watching the Kiwis defeat the Aussies 37-20. An entertaining match with a strong All Blacks side making a clean sweep of the series against a novice Wallabies outfit that will befit greatly from the exposure a year out from the World Cup. In what could be heralded as a preview to the RWC2019 final, as was the case for the RWC2015 final, these two behemoths of the World Cup era in rugby holding three and two Webb Ellis trophies respectively may not end up the finalists after the annus horribilis the Wallabies have endured in 2018 winning only 3 of 12 tests.
The week that followed was catching up with old rugby mates in Tokyo and discussing proposals with stakeholders that set to benefit from Japan hosting the World Cup. I even managed to pull on the boots to play a rugby match at YC&AC in Yokohama over 20 years since I had last played on that ground in the 1990s. To my surprise, there was a schoolboy/girl tournament going on there sponsored by Aussie Beef. Former Brave Blossoms representative and current Toshiba Brave Limpus stalwart, Hiroshi Ono or Kin-chan as the locals call him, was in attendance to give clout to the event that hosted teams from New Zealand and Australia. Great to see rugby being promoted in this soccer/baseball-mad country. I really hope the Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU) can really capitalise on the exposure rugby is getting through the RWC2019. Talking with Kyodo news rugby correspondent, Rich Freeman, after my match, he seemed somewhat pessimistic with the Japanese Top League being abandoned for the 2019-20 season. He also thought they should have lowered the ticket price for the Bledisloe Cup match to try for a sellout crowd after the rugby public had just forked out for World Cup tickets. It will be interesting to see how any benefit can come from hosting this event.
For my second week I made my way up into the mountains of central Japan to Nagano where a good friend of mine, Hide, lives in the City of Ueda. He showed me the rugby town of Sugadaira on the outskirts of Ueda where the high school rugby teams from all over Japan gather in summer to go through their paces. Driving through the town you can’t help but be overawed by everything rugby from the rugby ball monument in the centre of town to the Canterbury store, amongst other rugby brands, scattered throughout. Even the 7/11 store caters for sports supplements not common at other franchise locations in Japan. These highlands are where the Italian rugby union team will be based during the six-week tournament starting in September next year.
Heading back to Tokyo for my final weekend I felt somewhat disheartened by the fact that what I initially thought was an excitement for the RWC2019 was, in fact, more a curiosity as to what it would entail. Overshadowed by the Tokyo2020 Olympics, rugby still as a long way to go to capture the minds and souls of this unique homogeneous society reluctant to cash in on the tourism bonanza this event will bring. A chance to really open up and embrace the outside world could be missed unless something drastic is done. I will offer my services to ensure the success of this event and rugby sevens at the Olympics because there is a true bond of camaraderie born from rugby players and their fans.
On Sunday, fans braved the second half rain at Bond University to watch the National Rugby Championship semi-final between last year’s premiers Queensland Country and the Western Force. The star-studded Country outfit did not fail to impress from the getgo with tries aplenty in the first 20 minutes. None more so than 2018 Reds bolter, 18-year-old Jordan Petaia. Some very impressive running from the young Wallabies squad member playing at outside-centre with two tries in 15 minutes under the watchful eye of Reds coach Brad Thorn, who was standing beside me. From our vantage point, Caleb Timu also ran in for a five-pointer, on the blindside, with the Western Force down to 13 men.
Hamish Stewart did not bring his kicking boots which proved costly in the first half as Qld Country went to the sheds up only 20-14, after Western Force kicker, Ian Prior, converted their first two tries. Stewart did make-up for his earlier failures with the boot in the second half with two conversions and two penalty goals, but leaving points out there was scrutinised by Reds coach Thorn.
In the 53rd minute, referee Damon Murphy called the match off due to the lightning in the area, but after about 15 minutes the play was back on. A few spectators left at this juncture, however, there were plenty that stayed, eager to watch more from the impressive Queensland Country outfit. The final score was 45-24 to the home side, booking them a place in next weeks final in Suva against Fiji Drua.
Queensland Country coach, Rod Seib, said, “I’m really pleased with the team’s performance today. The team delivered.”
Some real standout performances by Caleb Timu and Angus Scott-Young that should see them get a future call-up to the Wallabies.
The last Rugby World Cup of the century began with much fanfare at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff two weeks ago. The top seeds won their pool games quite easily through the second week provided some interesting results.
The first real match-ups of rugby heavyweights took place last weekend with New Zealand verse England and Australia v Ireland.
In the former game, England realised it had to play 15-man rugby to repeat their finals appearance of 1991, but the superiority of the All Blacks came to the fore in Jonah Lomu. As in the 1995 tournament, the 58th minute proved Lomu was back with a trademark 60 metre run through the English backs to break the 16-16 deadlock.
New Zealand scored a further try by in-form halfback replacement Byron Kelleher and took the match 30-16.
In the latter match, the passionate Irish couldn’t back up their rough play with any try-scoring opportunities and the Wallabies went away with two tries to win a scrappy contest 23-3.
Instrumental in the win was mid-field saviour Tim Horan. As he was in the successful 1991 campaign three-Cup veteran Horan is the centre of attack.
I caught up with Tim Horan before he and the team left Australia a few weeks ago on a typical early spring day in Brisbane.
In contrast to the light rain that fell at Lansdowne Road before Sunday’s match, blue sky with the sun shining brightly greeted me as I parked out the front of Tim’s Queenslander house. His daughter directed me to ‘the office’ where the interview was conducted.
It had been about 10 years since we played in the Colts (under 19) “Dream Team” that won the 1988 Grand Final convincingly and just like then he can still carve through backlines as he proved with vintage aplomb on Sunday against the Irish.
The Aussie campaign to “Bring back Bill”, the affectionate name they have given the William Webb Ellis trophy, is underway and November 6, just three weeks off, is looming as a very significant day for a young nation entering the new millennium.
For also on that day a referendum will be carried out in Australia to decide whether to become a republic or hold onto a dying monarchy. The players have already voted and Captain John Eales had one regret that they won’t be playing England on that day.
“It would have been good to play England in the final,” he said. “We could stuff them on the field – and stuff them in the vote.”
I asked Tim his opinion as to Australia winning the 1999 World Cup. He said, “We have a fairly good chance, but Ireland won’t be easy.”
“At the moment we are concentrating mainly on Wales in the quarters”.
He didn’t seem too concerned about Larkham’s injury noting that it was not as bad as the thumb injury he sustained in a Super 12 match where he had to go off at halftime.
His lack of concern proved justified as Larkham had a solid return to test match level rugby last Sunday and again yesterday against the Americans.
‘At the moment we are concentrating on Wales in the quarters’
Australia’s chances of regaining the Webb Ellis trophy are looking pretty good. As Bob Dwyer stated in his 1992 autobiography that the best two prepared teams contested the final in 1991 and should that be the case this time the Wallabies (and the Kiwis) are starting to come good at the right time.
An emphatic win over the Kiwis at Stadium Australia, 34-9, in front of 107,000+ people was a psychological shot in the arm after some lacklustre games preceding it.
“The atmosphere was ecstatic…great for Australian rugby”, Tim said. “Crowd support like that is something we don’t often get in Australia.”
“In New Zealand and South Africa you come to expect to play 16 (including the crowd) but at Stadium Australia it was excellent.”
This game provided the springboard for Australia’s assault at retaining rugby’s Holy Grail, the Webb Ellis trophy.
In a year that has seen our cricketers, hockey and netball players win their respective world championships it would be another piece of silverware on the mantelpiece of a proud young nation.
Australia’s first match of the tournament was against Romania in Belfast. Once again Tim Horan proved too good for the weak defence and scored in less time then it takes to pour a pint of Guinness (119 seconds).
For his effort, sponsors Guinness will donate £10,000 to the charity of his choice (this probably should go to the under-financed Romanian rugby team).
The tournament run by the Five Nations has had its detractors noting the lop-sided results. But as Sydney Morning Herald writer Peter FitzSimons says, “Wouldn’t rugby league love the chance to show it had a similar array of cultures, backgrounds and socio-economic firepower united through a common passion?”
When Australia hosts the next rugby World Cup in 2003 these same arguments will be brought out along with the problems of where each game will be held.
As rugby has become professional the bottom line has been to make as much return from the game as is put in and that means bums on seats.
At the present World Cup, we have seen good numbers at games in England, France and Wales but poor ones for matches in Scotland.
The Scottish Rugby Union is responsible for this balls-up due to their traditional opposition to any innovations or improvements of the game and their initial rejection of having a World Cup when first raised by the IRB.
I remember asking a Scottish friend about tickets for the World Cup early this year and he told me that even the clubs are finding it hard to obtain any – what a travesty that has proven
Fast forward to 2003 where the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) is calling the shots, will the spectators be looked after then?
Will Queensland, a strong backyard for Wallaby talent, be overlooked for the choice matches by Melbourne; or even Perth?
ARU head, John O’Neill has decided not to give Brisbane a Bledisloe Cup match next year opting for Melbourne where rugby is hardly played because they can guarantee numbers through the turnstiles.
However, when I asked Tim about the lack of major test matches in Brisbane he cited that only 34,000 people came to Suncorp Stadium for the Tri-nations match against South Africa in July.
With the present debates over a super-stadium in Brisbane in the professional age of rugby, Queensland may be left out on a limb.
The debacle when Queensland topped the Super 12 and was given a home semi-final over whether to play at Ballymore or Suncorp Stadium meant that those schoolboys who supported the Reds all season weren’t allowed to use their schoolboy passes.
Subsequently, many locals boycotted and a proportionally larger Kiwi contingent turned up to see Canterbury outplay an uninterested Queensland side.
A further point I raised with Tim was that of the end of season Rico Challenge played between Queensland, New South Wales and ACT.
He supported the concept saying it is a good way for fringe players to get a Super 12 contract.
Although spectators to these games are low if marketed properly and positioned better in the rugby calendar, as proposed, we may see this problem overcome.
Finally, I asked Tim of his plans after the World Cup.
“Well I have another year to go on my Super 12 contract, but after that, I’d like to play in Europe”, he said.
“The pressure of Super 12 and test matches are great and I’d like to relax for a while with my family”.
No chance of following in your father’s footsteps and entering politics?
“No way!!!” he replied.
“You could give me a million bucks for a day in politics and I’d say no.
“For all the hard work my father does he doesn’t seem to get any popular response”.
The interview ended at 3pm as Tim apologized that he had to pick up one of the kids from school.
This weekend the final pool matches of the World Cup will be wrapped up with Pool D looking the closest; the clash between France and Fiji to determine the winner of Pool C being unclear; and England against Tonga no certainty.
“You could give me a million bucks for a day in politics and I’d say no.”
New Zealand’s hundred plus points against Italy was very impressive while Australia’s line was crossed for the first time this tournament by the USA, but went on to win 55-19.
Finishing the top of pool E Australia is guaranteed a semi-final berth, however, they will be without star running loose forward Toutai Kefu banned for 14 days for his toe-to-toe with Ireland’s enforcer Trevor Brennan.
Australian coach Rod McQueen was upset about the “selective citations”, but acknowledges the tournament has been well run.
Whichever team holds aloft the Webb Ellis trophy on November 6 rugby will be the real winner.
The first round of the Finals Series began last weekend at Ballymore with minor premiers, UQ, taking on strong finishers GPS in the major semi-final at 3pm. Uni got away to an early lead 3-0 with a penalty kick, as the crowd started to assemble for the first semi. I found myself in a very vocal GPS’ supporters group, buoyed by their finals day and were hoping they could erase the 54-5 shellacking their girls received in the Women’s GF against a strong Sunnybank team.
In, the major semi-final, what I thought was going to be a walk in the park for the Red Heavies turned out to be a real arm-wrestle with the Galloping Greens from Ashgrove strong until the final whistle. The last 10 minutes was riveting stuff with the Smith twins, Reds’ JP & Ruan, in the front row dominating at scrum time, with eventually the UQ tight-head prop being yellow carded with less than 10 minutes on the clock. Unversity of Queensland was just too strong, inevitably holding on to win 24-21 and to go straight into the Grand Final in two weeks time, whilst GPS have to play Easts next Sunday at Ballymore for a 3.05PM kick-off after they defeated Souths 25-17.
Bathed in beautiful winter sun in the western suburbs of Brisbane at Yoku Road, top of the table clash in the Hospital Challenge Cup between GPS and Souths took place last Saturday. Ladies Day at the Ashgrove Sports Ground meant for a healthy spectator turnout, 3000+, with plenty of Reds contracted players for both teams turning out for a great afternoon of local club rugby. A pity Raelene Castle was not present to witness grassroots rugby, the bloodline for Super Rugby and the Wallabies, at its raw best. The Honorable Member for Ashgrove, Education & Tourism Minister Kate Jones, was out there enjoying champagne in the Ladies Tent and was not averse to mingling with the strong crowd from both teams during the match.
After the 3.20pm kickoff, both teams went at each other hammer and tong ensuring running rugby was the game we had come to watch. Recalcitrant Reds prop JP Smith led the charge resulting in a penalty try to Jeeps within the first 10 minutes after Souths tight-head prop, Jake Simeon, was yellow-carded for collapsing. The Magpies were not disheartened with a pep talk from the sideline from injured fly-half, Quade Cooper, inspiring the men in black to run in three expansive tries to lead 19-7. But the Ashgrove lads regrouped under Man of the Match half-back, Jordan Lenac, and equalled the score by the half-time break 19-all.
Everyone was braced for the second half as the last rays of sunlight slipped behind the western hills and the grounds lighting was turned on. What ensued was fast-paced attacking rugby with neither side letting up until GPS scored two tries to lead 26-19 with 20 minutes to go. Souths were valiant in their reply with Eto Nabuli running in out-wide after the sustained attack on the left flank. With No. 1 supporter Quade Cooper, now positioned behind Souths goalposts giving constant encouragement to his teammates, the Magpies threw everything at the Galloping Greens, but they never gave up and managed to register Souths first loss of the season. The loss was not enough to dislodge Southern Districts from the top of the Hospital Challenge Cup table on 23 points, but the students at Queensland Uni delivered a mighty 45-29 victory over Western Districts, despite the strong showing from Scott Higginbotham, to leap ahead of GPS with a bonus point to go clear in second place on 20 points. Eastern Districts and GPS on 19 points round out the top four.
Last Friday, May 4th, 2018, an ambitious and bold move by Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest to breath life back into the Western Force rugby union side that was last year unceremoniously axed from Super Rugby. Amongst the fireworks, skydivers and an aboriginal performance, Nib Stadium, packed with 19,466 diehard locals, once again witnessed high-quality provincial rugby in Perth. The largest crowd in Australia for provincial rugby for quite some time witnessed Western Force 2.0 defeat a fast-paced Fiji Warriors outfit 24-14 in the first of seven “exhibition” matches in the genesis of World Series Rugby. Just like the Star Wars prequels, re-envigorating rugby union in this country is something the Force may be with you. Rugby Australia and World Rugby have initially given Forrest the green light with his vision and will be waiting with baited breath to see if this venture can bring life back to a code losing relevance in the plethora of winter sports in this country biting off ever bigger chunks of the finite pie of attracting an ever decerning public.
The fact that Twiggy Forrest’s name was plastered all over the event with constant references to him over the stadium’s public address system certainly did not warrant a torrent of social media protests after the event. If it was not for Forrest, top class provincial rugby would be anathema to the Western Australia public and the aspirations for young rugby players of a pathway to the Wallabies, in the West, would be cut off. That the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) under CEO Gary Flowers had the foresight to award the fourth Super Rugby franchise to Perth ahead of Melbourne in 2004 was visionary for building the game there. They cited “people power” as the deciding factor and that grew to the ‘Sea of Blue’ eclipsing the fan base of the other Australian Super Rugby franchises.
I hope Raelene Castle is taking note of “people power” in the West for a code that has over 120 years of history with RugbyWA being founded in 1893. That masterstroke by the ARU to award Perth the fourth franchise in 2004 and in one stroke could taketh away in 2017 shows destain for what had been created over 12 years. If the blueprint by Forrest to harness that “people power” in the West and fund expansion of the game into the Asia-Pacific region can only be a healthy option for the code. To fund teams from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga is really appealing after the pillaging that has gone on for rugby talent from predominately New Zealand and Australia to other nations around the rugby globe. Not even Rupert Murdoch has been game to enter the Pasifika market an obviously rugby-mad region due to a lack of financial gain.
To have a stronger rugby footprint in the economic powerhouse that is Asia leading up to next year’s World Cup in Japan (with matches played in Hong Kong and Singapore) is whetting interest by World Rugby. To be able to market the sport which was warmly embraced last week by Singapore in the recent HSBC World Sevens Series tournament there and obviously Hong Kong is a hotbed of rugby interest, especially the last weekend of March (now the first weekend in April), for over 30 years. And Japan has a very fervent schoolboy and university participation rate and company teams with open chequebooks.
This is an exciting time for rugby union and Twiggy’s vision could go down as a watershed in the annals of a code desperate to maintain relevance in a saturated sporting landscape that is Australia. Rugby Australia should become more involved in what is happening in the West, especially if reports out of South Africa that they want to pull out of Super Rugby are true. New Zealand will support anything rugby in the region so I have no fear that we will lose our cross Tasman rivalry. It is only onwards and upwards and as they say in the West, “May the Western Force be with you”.
The tsunami of response to revisiting the question of whether changes are needed to the red card system has been ignited by New Zealand referee Brendon Pickerill’s decision to send off Reds Captain, Scott Higginbotham, in their opening match against the Melbourne Rebels last Friday. Recent results have proven that an early red-card send off have resulted in obscuring the final result so much so that the offending team usually loses. This can be exemplified last year when the mighty All Blacks were dealt a fatal blow when Sonny Bill Williams was red-carded against the British & Irish Lions in their second test match denying them the win and consequently a record series white-wash. Wallabies prop, Sekope Kefu, was red-carded against Scotland in their end of season match which resulted in losing the test match 53-24. Also, in 2011, Welsh captain, Sam Warburton, was sent off early in their World Cup quarter-final match against the Wallabies and subsequently suffered defeat and being knocked out of the tournament (see more).
Therefore, it can be demonstrated the devastating effect of a red card, especially early in a match. It can be argued, and heavily was debated by Reds fans, that the Higginbotham dismissal in the first 10 minutes of the Reds opening Super Rugby match had a devastating effect on the final result. Losing your leader so early in a match denies the team the attacking momentum and direction for such a young team and that was noticeable. However, to start questioning the referee’s decision is going against the fundamental principle of rugby, which has been ingrained in our heads since we first picked up the ball. As I have consistently reiterated throughout my rugby career that if there was no referee there is no game and they should be considered sacrosanct. Whether it was Paddy O’Brien, head of World Rugby’s referees, or another official, the decision to protect player welfare is paramount to the continuation of rugby union. An official line in the sand has been drawn and the decision to award a red card when a tackle to the head is enacted, regardless of how much force appears to have or have not occurred.
Players should be taught how to tackle properly and that anything high should be obliterated from the game. The fact that a player of Quade Cooper’s pedigree, having played over sixty tests for the Wallabies, can consistently be sent off for high tackles is astonishing. How can a player come out of such a rugby nursery as Church of England Grammar School’s 1stXV and not be able to tackle is incredulous? Maybe Brad Thorn has a point in his axing.
Player well-fare is the real question that has to be addressed and proper coaching from the grassroots up is the key. Take the emotion out the equation and have a real discussion about how we want OUR game to progress. It is still a contact sport, but we no longer send Christians to the lions, so a little bit of cool-headed clarity is needed.