ARFU’s philosophical change a boon for Asia’s big three
Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said “the only thing that is constant is change”. We were reminded of that quote when it was revealed next year’s Asian Five Nations Top Five competition will shrink to a Top Three.
While this will be a big boon for Hong Kong, who will get the chance to play Japan and South Korea on a home-and-away basis, spare a thought for the rest or the region.
The Philippines, Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Singapore, United Arab Emirates have all rubbed shoulders with the elite in Asia, but no more. And it’s mainly because of the loss of sponsor HSBC.
The Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) has done itself proud providing an annual competition for its 28 members and this will continue in some form. But at the top it will be a more select membership with Japan, perennial winners of the A5N, second-placed Hong Kong and Korea forming the elite.
This decision was a collective one. ARFU general secretary Asanga Seneviratne said the rest of Asia could not match the Top Three at 15s, although great strides had been made to close the gap in sevens.
“All three unions – Japan, Hong Kong and Korea – are ahead of the rest and it is for the betterment of everybody that this decision was taken,” Seneviratne said. “Countries like Japan and Hong Kong have high-performance rugby centres, something the rest of us don’t have.
“Until we can invest monies in that, it is better we go down this path for there is no joy in getting beaten by more than 50 or 60 points,” he said.
Even at the top, there will be a demarcation. Japan are likely to field their ‘A’ team in the Top Three, or at least use this competition to groom younger talent as they looks to become a competitive force by 2019 when the country hosts the World Cup.
Japan have outgrown the rest of Asia and their focus has changed. Instead of aiming to be just the best in Asia, they now want to be able to compete against the top 10 in the world. Fielding a team in Super Rugby from 2016 will help them move in that direction. Asia will only be important to them in a World Cup qualifying year.
Change was inevitable. Hong Kong, in turn, can only benefit by playing against Japan twice, even if it is not their top team. We need more competition against sides ranked higher. These four tests plus the autumn tests against sides such as Russia will give us six test matches a year. Hopefully, a couple more can be added.
As for the rest of Asia, they will get the opportunity to rub shoulders with the Top Three. The winner of the second tier competition involving the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan and Singapore will get the chance to go into a promotion-relegation play-off against the bottom-placed team in the Top Three.
“It will be a one-off play-off but only if the winner wants to challenge for a Top Three spot,” said Seneviratne.
In the old days when there were only eight member countries, the ARFU competition was held every two years with unions taking turns to host the competition.
With the spread of rugby, that system became untenable. And it led to ARFU providing a format spread across divisions.
Now everything has changed again, proving once more that Heraclitus was spot on.