Ballot loss could scupper World Cup hosting hopes
A broken 'gentleman's agreement' has strained relations between Hong Kong and Japan, and could jeopardise the former's bid to host a few games - or even a pool - of the 2019 Rugby World Cup after local boss Trevor Gregory lost his bid to become Asia's representative on the International Rugby Board.
Gregory was beaten in a secret ballot by Japan Rugby Football Union senior official Koji Tokumasu after a heated council meeting of the Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) in Vientiane, Laos, with the 23 members split down the middle. Tokumasu, the general manager of Rugby World Cup 2019, won leaving Gregory and the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union counting the cost - which might be grave as Japan are hosts of the 2019 showpiece.
HKRFU chairman Gregory (pictured) said he had run for the IRB position because of a gentleman's agreement struck four years ago with Japan and the ARFU, that it would be Hong Kong's turn to put forward a candidate for the four-year term starting this month.
'We supported Japan the last time  with Nobby Mashimo being put forward as Asia's representative on the IRB. At the time, Japan was bidding for the 2015 and 2019 Rugby World Cups and it was felt it would be best for Japan to have an extra person on the IRB council,' Gregory said.
For the past four years, Asia has been represented by then Japan RFU chairman Noburu Mashimo, who was nominated by the HKRFU. The understanding was the Japan RFU would in turn support a Hong Kong nominee for the post.
'I was to be the Asia representative on the IRB in 2007, but I stepped aside and allowed Nobby to take up the position. Japan acknowledged then they would support me four years later [in 2011], but unfortunately that didn't happen,' Gregory said.
Japan has a permanent place on the IRB council and with the ARFU representation, they have two votes. It is believed IRB politics swayed the Japan RFU to put forward Tokumasu as a surprise candidate.
Japan supports incumbent Bernard Lapasset for another term as IRB president.
Lapasset, whose term was due to end after this year's World Cup, surprised everyone when he revealed he intended to run for another four-year term, which would take him up to 2016 when rugby sevens will be played at the Rio Olympics.
The Frenchman's decision meant former England captain Bill Beaumont - the IRB vice-president - would not automatically step up. This has resulted in an election for the top job, and it will take place in Las Vegas a week on Monday.
'Everyone had the wrong perception that I, and Hong Kong, would support Bill Beaumont,' Gregory said. 'I am an honourable person and I would have voted the way ARFU instructed me to vote. A vote for me wasn't a vote for Bill Beaumont.' But unwilling to take any chance, the Japan RFU put Tokumasu forward. Lapasset also turned up at the ARFU council meeting last Sunday, ratcheting up the pressure on Gregory's bid.
'I am disappointed IRB politics encroached into the ARFU council meeting. We have always been a close family and I hope what happened will not harm relationships,' Gregory said.
He hoped the rift would not harm Hong Kong's hopes of hosting a few games during the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
'It is Japan and the IRB's decision to make. We want to be a part of the 2019 World Cup, but it will be their choice,' Gregory said. 'I offer my hand in friendship to Japan whatever the case. We are friends and I want it to stay that way.'
Gregory had to step down as the ARFU's vice-president to contest the IRB post for Asia. But he is still a general member of the ARFU council.