ROADSHOW OFF TO TOKYO
ARU chief O'Neill looks set to finalise a deal for Japan to host Bledisloe's next Asian adventure. Alvin Sallay reports
This morning, just hours before the national anthems of Australia and New Zealand are sung and the traditional lion dance is held, Australian Rugby Union (ARU) chief executive John O'Neill will sit down with his Japanese counterpart to hammer out the possibility of the Bledisloe Cup being held in Tokyo in 2010.
Asia holds the key to the future of rugby union in Australia. Forced to battle it out for a dwindling financial pie with other popular codes, like rugby league and Australian Rules, the ARU has taken the bold approach of placing the Wallabies in the overseas marketplace.
That is why today's spectacle will unfold at Hong Kong Stadium.
'From our perspective, our long-term vision is to engage Asia as a natural rugby market. That is the economic reality we face,' says O'Neill. 'And the way to make an investment in markets in Asia is from games like this.'
O'Neill, 57, (pictured) is no stranger to Asia. As head of the Football Federation Australia in 2004, he championed the cause for Australia to move out of Oceania and join the Asian Football Confederation. The Socceroos are now vying with the rest of Asia for a berth at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Oceania was too small for O'Neill then. 'If I had told someone three, four years ago that Adelaide United would be playing in the final of the AFC Champions League, they would have said not in my time. But today this is what is happening in Australian soccer, which has strong links with Asia.'
Now with his rugby hat on, Oceania is too small for him again.
'The rugby footprint in Asia is not as big as in football, but there are pockets where it can grow. Back home we are a small consumer market. New Zealand has a population of four million and we have 21 million, both small compared with countries like England and France. So it makes sense we move out of Oceania and into Asia-Pacific.'
Having seen a picture of Chinese schoolchildren doing the haka with the All Blacks earlier this week, O'Neill says the move to bring the Bledisloe Cup to Hong Kong is already paying dividends.
'That picture confirmed that we made the right decision. We are really comfortable with this move and it makes us even more ambitious,' he says.
So ambitious there is a strong likelihood that next year Richie McCaw and the All Blacks and Stirling Mortlock's Wallabies will have to travel all the way to Denver for the fourth leg of the Bledisloe Cup.
When the Hong Kong stop was first publicised, it created a storm of protest from the public in Australia and New Zealand. But O'Neill says things have calmed down as people understand the reasons - making money and propagating the two brands while hopefully spreading the game - for the offshore ventures.
'We have not deprived the people back home of anything. The traditional three Bledisloe Cup games were still played in Australia and New Zealand this year. This was an additional game. And the fact that more than 6,000 people are travelling is proof the public is supportive,' O'Neill said.
Australia and New Zealand have traditionally been forward-looking and innovative. It was the two countries that first got their heads together and came up with the idea of having a World Cup in 1987.
'We had to convince the northern hemisphere that it was a good idea,' O'Neill recalls. While countries like England don't need to look overseas as they have huge domestic markets, it might not be beyond the realms of possibility for the Red Rose to be seen playing against the Wallabies at Hong Kong Stadium.
O'Neill advocates such enterprise in Hong Kong. 'This is a great town, a party town. I have been to the Hong Kong Sevens since 1984 and I find that this week, there has been a similar buzz around,' he said.
'It will be a great spectacle at Hong Kong Stadium - when those teams run out to the roar of the crowd, when the two national anthems are sung, when the haka is performed and then the two tribes go to war. I can't wait for it to begin.'