Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 October, 2008, 12:00am

Asian rugby powerhouses Japan are expected to be the last team standing - unless Hong Kong or Taiwan can stop them - when the 2009 World Cup Sevens men's qualifying tournament draws to an end tonight at the Hong Kong Football Club.

That Japan are the strongest team in the region is no real surprise considering they are the only country in Asia, from among the 14 full IRB members, to have a fully professional league.

Hong Kong's authorities might have taken their first baby steps towards professionalism last month - the union giving full-time contracts to three players (Mark Wright, Keith Robertson and Rowan Varty) all of whom will be in action today - but we are a long, long way from coming anywhere close to Japan's corporate-based rugby structure.

Thus it is no surprise Japan is the only Asian nation capable of putting forward a credible case to the International Rugby Board to award it a future World Cup (15-a-side). Japan's team have not only played in all previous World Cups, their administration also has the financial clout and the infrastructure to host it.

So there was much cheer within the ranks of the Asian community when Japanese rugby boss Nobby Mashimo said this week: 'We are bidding to host the World Cup not just for Japan but for Asia. Bringing the tournament to Japan and Asia will unlock the potential of rugby as a truly global sport.'

But obviously Mashimo and company are not accustomed to the saying 'a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush'. Otherwise, they would not have gone and presented bids for both the 2015 and 2019 World Cups.

Instead of just focusing on the 2015 World Cup - the bird in hand - Japan made a formal bid for either of the two events when the IRB's deadline for the official tender process drew to an end this week. This has weakened Japan's hand.

By giving the IRB members an option, what Japan has done is to allow the world governing body to choose one of the traditional powers as the venue for the 2015 World Cup and give Japan the 2019 event as a sop.

We use the word 'choose' figuratively. What really happens is the IRB council will vote on the host nations for the two World Cups next July. In the past, the IRB has picked only one host at a time. But it has decided on change.

'By voting on two World Cups at the same time, it gives members more room to look at a non-traditional country hosting the tournament,' IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset told us recently.

What it also gives is room for the IRB to manoeuvre.

A record number of countries have signalled their intent to bid for the two World Cups. Australia, England, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Scotland, South Africa and Wales have confirmed their intention to tender for the 2015 World Cup. And for 2019, the list includes Australia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Russia, Scotland, South Africa and Wales.

Eight countries are bidding for each event, seven of them are in the race for both, while England is only interested in 2015 and has been replaced by Russia for 2019.

The presence of England in the race for the rights to host the 2015 World Cup bodes ill for Japan. The widely held view is that the next World Cup - in 2011 in New Zealand - will not be a moneyspinner for the IRB and as such it will want the subsequent one (2015) to go to a country where a tournament is guaranteed to be a financial success.

England fits the bill. It has the world's biggest rugby-playing population and it can rake in the shekels for the IRB, where it holds much clout. With the RFU being one of the eight founding members of the IRB, the 2015 decision is all but a done deal.

This is why the Japanese should have only put their name forward for 2015. Give it to us in 2015, or we don't want it at all - this should have been their approach. They should have forced the IRB's hand.

The Japanese have already tasted failure, losing the 2011 World Cup bid by a single vote to New Zealand. It will be so unfair if they have to wait until 2019 to bring the World Cup to Asia. Is it worth waiting so long?

The IRB has maintained it is in the interests of world rugby and the globalisation of the game to take the World Cup to a non-traditional country. But it seems it is only paying lip-service.

The six previous editions have been shared between the traditional powers in the southern and northern hemispheres - ever since the first tournament was held in 1987 in Australia and New Zealand. It has been kept in-house where deals are struck before the voting begins.

Thankfully, the World Cup Sevens has not suffered the same fate. Hong Kong has hosted two of the four World Cups - in 1997 and 2005 - while the other two were held in Scotland (the inaugural event in 1993) and Argentina (2001). Now Dubai will host next year's event - and winging their way will be the finalists in the men's competition today and the top three women's teams.

But when it comes to 15s, the IRB has been less adventurous.

What better proof to show the IRB is serious about developing rugby than taking the World Cup to Japan. If football can do it - Fifa's World Cup was held in Japan and South Korea in 2002 - why can rugby not follow suit?

Tomorrow, the Asian Rugby Football Union's executive committee will meet to talk about the state of affairs in the region. They will laud, and support, Japan's bid. But they will think it is a shame that Japan isn't only bidding for 2015.

By going for either the 2015 or the 2019 World Cups, Japan has given the IRB the opportunity to dither and sit on the fence once again.