Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Big Read: Rugby set for global explosion

All Blacks and Irish fans mingle in Chicago. Photo / Getty
All Blacks and Irish fans mingle in Chicago. Photo / Getty

There were big movements in the rugby world last week, enough to see that the All Blacks, if they are smartly managed, could be the key driver in it all.

The game is on the cusp of global explosion. Rugby is never going to be as popular as football, or match the NFL or NBA for financial clout, but it is on the verge of becoming a big sport by any standard and the game changer is going to be China.

Long-term followers of rugby might be sceptical. They have heard for more than 20 years how the United States is a sleeping giant, and still we wait.

China, even though it has little or no rugby heritage, is a different proposition. There are two reasons why China has the potential to awaken quickly and dramatically. The first is that $100 million of investment has already been secured.

Jack Ma, the founder of the Alibaba enterprise, has made a 10-year commitment to Chinese rugby that will see cash pumped into all levels of the game.

It's not enormous money but enough to ensure China will see participation numbers climb from the current 75,000.

The second factor driving China's likely growth is that rugby has government endorsement.

It was revealed by World Rugby boss Brett Gosper that the Chinese Government are suddenly big rugby fans, believing the sport fosters just the sort of qualities they want to see in their people, those being, among others, resilience, character and teamwork.

The fact there are now Olympic medals in sevens is a huge lure and China are believed to harbour the ambition of hosting a World Cup.

China are keen to host a Rugby World Cup. Photo / AP
China are keen to host a Rugby World Cup. Photo / AP

That would be something. The earliest it could be held there is 2027 and 2031 is probably more realistic. But why not? Infrastructure presumably would not be a problem and the corporate and broadcasting worlds would be beside themselves at the prospect of huge exposure across China.

"We can't put a date on that but I think if over the next 10 years, the development programmes from grassroots through to pathways for players into the Olympics and into top XVs teams, and some big events in China ... inspire the young kids and so on, there's absolutely no reason why China wouldn't one day host a Rugby World Cup," Gosper said.

There is reason to ponder whether Fiji might be a finalist in this 2031 World Cup hosted by China.

It's not such a random thought, certainly not when Fiji's sevens coach, Ben Ryan, was adamant there is $35 million on the table to fund a Super Rugby team in Nadi.

This was arguably the most surprising and welcome news of the week. Ryan revealed that high-profile, major corporates have the desire to back the creation of a professional Pacific Island side.

If this is legitimate, it will mean the Pacific Islands have cleared the one hurdle no one thought they could.

Speaking to the New Zealand Herald earlier this year, Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos said that, if Super Rugby was to expand again, it needed to consider as a priority the rugby ability of any new side.

He said a Pacific Island side would have the high performance aspect nailed down but there were doubts about the commercial sustainability. Ryan may just have provided the certainty on that front.

"I believe the impact of this plan would see Fiji win the World Cup one day," said Ryan.

"We have shown in sevens what we can do.

"And if you just look at the impact the Fiji players are having on the tier one countries, they are their star players in New Zealand, Australia, England and France.

"It is not pie in the sky. Pick a world XV from those playing outside Fiji and Samoa in the other international teams and you would get a team that is there or thereabouts.

"We have got some of the biggest companies in the world backing this. They have ties with the Pacific Islands.

"I have had conversations and we have got money on the table to be able to pay for all this. We will have more money behind the team than any other Super Rugby franchise."

Consultancy firm Accenture has proposed that Super Rugby consider culling one if not two teams for the 2018 season, with the Force and Kings the two sides in danger.

Potentially, the Force could be chopped and the new Pacific side welcomed into the Australian Conference.

An added benefit of setting up a Super Rugby side in Fiji is the pathway it would create to the national team. And not just for Fiji - also for Samoa and Tonga, too.

The proliferation of Pacific talent around the world has long been a concern. Ryan's point about Fiji being a potential World Cup winner if they can keep their next generation of players is hard to refute.

The Olympic winning coach and captain for Fiji. Photo / Getty
The Olympic winning coach and captain for Fiji. Photo / Getty

Waisake Naholo, Henry Speight, Marika Koroibete, Tevita Kuridrani and Nathan Hughes are Fijians playing test football for other nations this November.

All of them have qualified through the three-year residency rule which, coincidentally to potential Super Rugby developments in Fiji, was being debated by World Rugby.

New deputy chairman Agustin Pichot is determined the eligibility rules need to be reviewed, as three years may not be long enough to ensure credibility and integrity.

He holds this view partly because he has seen how the Pumas are the only major nation who don't have any players in their team who have qualified through this route.

The World Cup last year was full of residency players. All the major teams had some in their mix and the danger is that some test sides are losing their authenticity.

Ireland, for example, have been able to make supreme use of New Zealander Jared Payne and will no doubt soon have access to former Chiefs player Bundee Aki once he has served his time.

Jared Payne has benefited from rugby's eligibility rules. Photo / Getty
Jared Payne has benefited from rugby's eligibility rules. Photo / Getty

There are plenty of other New Zealanders on track to become eligible for Ireland and the prospect of them soon fielding a team where more than half the players weren't born in Ireland is real.

Does this matter? And if not three years, then what is the appropriate length of time a player must live in his adopted country to be eligible?

It's a complex issue and was passionately debated by World Rugby delegates last week.

If there was enough support to change things, a proposal will be put forward for vote. But the chances are high the rules will be kept as they are as few of the larger nations have a genuine appetite to change them. England, who have the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, and Manu Tuilagi in their mix, and New Zealand, who field Malakai Fekitoa, Naholo and Jerome Kaino through the residency rule, are likely to want to keep things just how they are.

As All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said when asked how he felt about Payne and other Kiwis playing for Ireland: "I haven't sat down and thought about it too much. If Jared is over there and that's what he wants to do and he meets the criteria then I think that is great. Bundee Aki is not far away, either, and could be another one.

"The powers that be have all the information at hand and, as long as people aren't taking advantage of young athletes and putting them in a situation where they are promising them stuff and then don't give it to them, then I think that would be wrong.

"By and large, it's been happening for a long time and is it three years, or four years? That's for the powers to be to work out."

So how do the All Blacks fit into all this? How can they be an influencing factor in the success or otherwise of this global expansion of rugby?

The answer is relatively simple. As rugby expands into new territories it needs, more than ever, a flag-ship brand, a standard bearer, an aspirational team that creates a mystique about the game in the way Brazil are romanticised to near mythical status in football.

Who else other than the All Blacks could it be? England have all the money and are a good side at the moment but it has to be stressed, at the moment. They don't have a sustained history and will they be as good in a decade?

Neither the Wallabies nor the Springboks hold the same appeal as the All Blacks in international markets.

Just look at the crowd numbers this November. The All Blacks sold out every venue they played at - the Wallabies and Springboks didn't even get close to that.

The big markets of Europe have a fixation with the All Blacks. The bigger markets of China and the US probably will, too, and outside of World Cups, beating New Zealand is the greatest challenge every other nation faces.

The number of nations potentially capable of beating the All Blacks is only going to get greater and yet their standing in the game has never been higher.

- NZ Herald

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