The Rugby Championship
An annual competition involving the southern hemisphere’s top four rugby-playing nations – New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina. Known as the Tri Nations from 1996 to 2012, when the Pumas were invited to join the party.
It's a new twist on the old theme. Knock, knock, who's there, anyone going to the Bledisloe Cup test? It's not a scenario the New Zealand or Australian Rugby unions envisaged when they shipped the Bledisloe Cup offshore two years ago. The unions took that test to Hong Kong as part of a rugby promotion carnival, an evangelical crusade for the sport in Asia as well as a lucrative broadcasting and sponsorship boost for their struggling coffers. It also gave the All Blacks and Wallabies a useful hit-out on their way to their annual tours of the Northern hemisphere. The concept was deemed a success by most, except for All Black hooker Andrew Hore, who damaged an ankle and was invalided out of the tour.
Administrators shifted the experiment to Tokyo last season, worryingly without any great impact, and decided to return the match this year to Hong Kong. They also chose to turn over much of the promotional and planning to the local authorities. Reasonable idea but not such a great outcome. Ticket sales have been slow, marketing mixed, the interest lukewarm.
If Australia and New Zealand were as fervent as their noble public utterances about developing the game in Asia, they might have driven the international more purposefully. Only a couple of years ago, NZRU chief executive Steve Tew was hammering the message about how the commercial growth of the sport was linked to the Asia-Pacific region. He was optimistic those connections would be strong and purposeful in the future.
Global financial pressures have had an impact while New Zealand eyes, at least, may have been more focused on the World Cup, which is returning once again after the 1987 birth of the tournament. Some of the trans-Tasman zeal for tests in Asia seems to have diminished and officials could argue that those who should be driving and encouraging the growth of rugby in the region are the ones who wear the International Rugby Board blazers.
Perhaps so, but the Tasman cousins did pump up their own importance and that of the Hong Kong and Tokyo contests as long as they could see a substantial guaranteed income. Some of that evangelical zeal appears to have drifted and late efforts to pump some oxygen into the Hong Kong test have struggled.
Enthusiasm about the three-year experiment in Asia appears to have morphed into a more pragmatic view about the reality of rugby in the region. Were a composite Asian XV or Hong Kong playing a New Zealand or Australian side, or involved in a curtain raiser to this Bledisloe Cup, interest may have been greater. Or not.
New Zealand and Australia supporters will be less interested in travelling to the test for any number of reasons. The Bledisloe Cup series is already dusted 3-0 in the All Blacks' favour, so another test between the two rivals, even in such an exotic location as Hong Kong, may be an expense too far. Especially with the World Cup in less than a year in New Zealand. Many southern rugby followers and others intending to visit next season, are saving their sheckles for that global festival in New Zealand.
Trans-Tasman clashes have become too regular even for rugby-besotted folk living either side of the ditch. A sense of anticipation and excitement has dipped with the increasing frequency of the contests. The All Blacks brand, arguably, may be the most powerful in the rugby world. Mention rugby to those with just a passing interest in the sport and there is a strong chance the All Blacks will also get thrown into the conversation.
There is an argument that the more they play, the more that sense of awe and mystique evaporates. However the sport's officials need matches to help generate the commercial revenue and income to retain their players.
Administrators will not want to let their links with Asia slip. There is the World Cup in Japan in 2019 and New Zealand and Australia will be mindful about the advantages of strengthening rather than reducing links with the Asian region before that tournament.
While the revised Super rugby tournament starts next year with more pool games in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, it is only a five-year extension and already there are questions about its longevity. The lure of playing a provincial competition in the Asia rim, the Pacific Nations and the western seaboard of the US remains in terms of timeframes, broadcasting involvement, stadiums, travel and revamped markets.
Columnist at the New Zealand Herald