x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Other Asian nations likely ahead of UAE in pecking order for Super Rugby expansion

Dubai would provide an interesting case in the race to be Asia’s Super Rugby expansion franchise.

The UAE's Ray Gilburt runs with the ball during a Test match against Singapore at The Sevens in Dubai on April 23, 2014. Sarah Dea / The National
The UAE's Ray Gilburt runs with the ball during a Test match against Singapore at The Sevens in Dubai on April 23, 2014. Sarah Dea / The National

The organisers of Super Rugby want their next expansion franchise to come from Asia.

Bill Pulver, the chief executive of Australian Rugby Union, said it would give the southern hemisphere league “the potential to become a truly global competition”.

“Our strong preference is for the 18th team to come from Asia, as we believe this will attract significant commercial opportunities for us in the future,” he said yesterday.

Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan have been mooted as interested destinations, but what about the UAE?

Could a major competition with a healthy sporting brand be successfully transposed to the emirates? Evidence gathered during the past month provides a compelling case, with cricket’s Indian Premier League being a massive hit here.

But it is different with Indians and cricket. They could stage an impromptu pick-up game of T20 in Alaska and it would probably draw a substantial crowd if MS Dhoni or Virat Kohli were playing.

Rugby in the UAE is less of a sure thing. As a fixture of the sporting calendar, always played during the National Day holiday weekend, the annual Dubai Rugby Sevens guarantees huge crowds every year.

By dint of the relative sizes of the venues, the Sevens actually gets more people through the door per day than any of the sold-out IPL matches here managed.

When he was in the UAE for a promotional event ahead of the Sevens last September, Bobby Skinstad, the former South Africa captain, said there should be a team based in Dubai.

“Look at the Sevens and see how popular it is,” Skinstad said at the time. “You don’t need 50 games per year. With a Super Rugby franchise, you might have six home games. It could be a colossal event, six times.”

With large expatriate populations from rugby-playing countries such as the UK, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, there would be a base audience for the matches here.

However, one would think a new franchise would need the involvement of a healthy number of local players if it is to survive. Supporters need to be able to identify with the players representing them for there to be sustained interest.

As such, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Hong Kong would be ahead of the UAE in terms of the pecking order for receiving potential franchises.

pradley@thenational.ae

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