The push to be included in the new-look Super Rugby competition has another interested party, with a new group lodging a formal expression of interest with New Zealand Rugby to be part of the 2022 competition. Liam Napier reports.
The Asia Pacific Dragons have launched an ambitious bid to join Super Rugby from 2022.
The Singapore-based Dragons, backed by Carinat Sports Marketing, are one of many groups to log formal expressions of interest with New Zealand Rugby as the local governing body attempts to stitch together an eight-to-10 team tournament from next year.
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The Herald understands the Dragons are one of four separate proposals New Zealand Rugby has received for the potential Pacific Island franchise alone.
Others include the Tracy Atiga-led Kanaloa Hawai'i, an Auckland-based group led by former Samoan lock Mark Birtwistle, while the Fijian Rugby Union is also understood to have expressed interest.
The Dragons' bid would see them stage matches in Auckland and Singapore and they have support from Pacific Island figures including Fiji's Nemani Nadolo, Samoa's Tusi Pisi and Tonga's Nili Latu. Other than their Pacific connection, the Dragons believe they can help unlock the lucrative Asian market.
Former Highlanders loose forward turned Dragons director of rugby Hale T-Pole, who is also the Pacific Island Rugby Players' chairman, said the Pacific national teams - Tonga, Fiji and Samoa - deserve this opportunity to gain a foothold in Super Rugby.
"Everyone keeps talking about helping, but the reality is the national teams have only slipped back further in world rankings. That isn't right and it's at the detriment to all genuine rugby lovers," T-Pole told the Herald.
"Auckland is the most logical 'home' base, not only due to having the community that will benefit the most but also logistically as we have a strong presence and following throughout Asia - a market we see important in growing the game. We would therefore plan to have some of our matches throughout the region.
"Covid has enforced the realities that the Super Rugby model wasn't working or as commercially successful as was needed. We are now living in a new world with new opportunities, and new thinking.
"NZR and Rugby Australia needs to re-think and actually change their approach to working with private entities such as ourselves and people like Andrew Forrest. We've demonstrated that private investment in rugby is a good thing, and it is a necessity for professional rugby to survive and thrive."
The Dragons formed in 2011 and first competed against the likes of the World XV and English giants Saracens. In various exhibition matches, they have been coached by Tana Umaga and Pat Lam. Last year they competed in Global Rapid Rugby, the tournament established by western Australian businessman Andrew Forrest following the Force's axing from Super Rugby.
Given New Zealand Rugby's concerns about the competitiveness of the five existing Australian sides against the strength of Kiwi opposition, the Dragons' one win from four matches in Global Rapid Rugby could prove a difficult sell, but they appear confident their proposal is attractive, realistic and allows time to attract talent.
T-Pole acknowledged even without Covid there is no chance to have a sustainable commercial programme in place by January 2021, let alone a competitive squad to take on the quality of sides in a Super competition.
"Therefore our proposal is for a 2022 entry which allows everyone time to ensure recruitment, commercial preparations and all aspects are successful.
"We also feel that as the only bid that can realistically bring the Asian market to the competition right out of blocks, we open up that potential. We cannot see another NZ-based team being commercially sustainable if NZ is the core commercial market.
"The other five brands already find themselves in an extremely cluttered market so we feel any new entrant team must bring a major expansion market with them to be sustainable, but also bring value to the competition."
Six years ago, the Dragons missed out in their first bid to join Super Rugby with Sanzaar instead preferring the rushed, and ultimately ill-fated, Tokyo-based Sunwolves entry.
"We believe it is six years of learning for everyone, not just ourselves. And that was the crux of our initial discussions with NZR before making the submission. The key takeaway is patience, and giving yourself enough time to build the success.
"This new entrant must ensure it is competitive and bring commercial value to help build the best rugby competition in the world. This should be the mission for the new competition. A strong and successful Pacific Island team, with Pacific national team qualified players, will do wonders for their performances."