Asia's oldest tournament axed for being 'too unwieldy'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am

Someone up there has a superb sense of timing. The day after Asia's 'Mr Rugby', Shiggy Konno, passed away officials from 23 of the 24 unions in the region decided the Asian Rugby Football Tournament (ARFT) was no longer viable.

The biennial ARFT, the world's oldest regional rugby tournament next to the Six Nations (formerly the Five Nations), will be sliced up into a number of divisions based on the strengths and standards of teams, and played on a promotion/relegation system. The International Rugby Board (IRB) favours this move, part of sweeping constitutional changes to Asian rugby.

'It had become cumbersome and costly,' said Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman Trevor Gregory. 'The idea of one union hosting all the other Asian members every two years is not viable any longer. The ARFT in its current form will no longer exist from next year,'

Sri Lanka has proposed to hold the last tournament in November - it was held over from last year due to security issues in Colombo. Hong Kong, and other members will await a security report from the IRB before deciding whether to take part in the November 3-10 tournament.

Japan's Konno, who was chiefly instrumental in setting up ARFT in 1969, predicted its demise in 2000, telling the South China Morning Post: 'The future of the Asian Championship in its present form is not rosy at all. The tournament's importance has been undervalued by the fact rugby is now a medal sport at the Asian Games and the World Cup is more important to Japan.'

Konno died last Sunday aged 83. He was the last surviving member of the triumvirate that set up the Asian body - the other two being Hong Kong's Vernon Roberts and Thai Chaloke Komarakum.

The Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU) announced Konno had died at the Asian Rugby Football Union's council meeting on Monday. Appropriately enough then, members had also handed out the last rites on the ARFT.

'If it was possible, I'm sure Shiggy would have been smiling down on us. He would have been pleased to see how far Asian rugby has come and how it will progress in the future,' Gregory said.

'Everyone supports the proposed structure.

'What it would mean is that annually there will be a year-long series of tournaments in different parts of Asia.

'Like now, there won't be a single main event every two years as no one union can afford to pay for such a tournament, and time constraints also prevent such an occurrence. There will be a promotion-relegation system with teams initially grouped on similar strengths. During a World Cup, the top group could also double up as a [World Cup] qualifier,' Gregory added.

The expansion of rugby in Asia has resulted in numbers increasing to 24 - from Guam to Iran. 'If the current format was continued, a union could have to wait for up to 48 years before being able to host an ARFT,' said Gregory.

Konno, who had wanted to become a kamikaze pilot during the second world war, rose to the position of president of the JRFU and was Asia's pre-eminent figure on the IRB.

In his 2000 interview, Konno said: 'The whole world is taking rugby more seriously. This has come about because of professionalism. We in Asia have done a great job in keeping the game alive in an environment not conducive to playing rugby. But I think changing goals and aspirations will see a lot of changes in the years to come.'