Japan coach John Kirwan believes Asia is reaching a pivotal point that will eventually lead to it becoming a major force in rugby union, a sport traditionally dominated by Europe and southern-hemisphere nations like South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
Japan won the Pacific Nations Cup two weeks ago after a fourth straight success in the HSBC Asian 5 Nations title in May and Kirwan is now preparing his side for the Rugby World Cup which starts in September in New Zealand, where the former All Black won the tournament as a player in 1987.
Having had a close look at the untapped potential of rugby in the region while teaching youngsters in this year’s HSBC ARFU Rugby Coaching Tour – which had made 10 stops in seven countries by last month – the former winger is convinced that the continent has begun a long-term process that will eventually take Asia to the sport’s top table.
“I sensed a different level of enthusiasm among the children and it feels significant. Having two of the next three World Cups in this part of the world and the inclusion of rugby sevens in the Olympics will help ensure more Asian kids are exposed to rugby,” said Kirwan, who took part in clinics held ahead of Japan’s four away matches in the HSBC Asian 5 Nations.
“Once we start the cycle for the 2016 Olympics next year, the level of investment in the sport is going to be beyond anything the sport has seen in this region. China has included rugby sevens in its National Games because of the Olympics, so imagine how much more the sport is going to grow as that kind of investment and involvement increases over the next 10 years. You have to believe many other Asian nations will emerge as forces in world rugby in the next decade or so.”
The former butcher’s apprentice from Mangere, who now splits his time between Japan and Italy, believes rugby is increasingly attractive for youngsters due to its emphasis on teamwork and discipline, while also giving newcomers the chance to be part of a community.
“Rugby has been so good to me and given me a lot. At these coaching clinics, I’m hoping that on a good day we’ll inspire someone to join the rugby community, because it’s not about how good you are or how far you get, it’s about a community helping each other,” Kirwan said.
“I always say if you need a job, join a rugby club, because there will be someone who will help you out. Hopefully we can encourage these youngsters to have hope and to follow our great game, which helps create character and certainly can help them in the future.”
These values and rugby’s potential, especially in the sevens format, make the sport a natural fit with HSBC, especially in Asia’s emerging markets. HSBC has been title sponsor of the Asian 5 Nations since 2008, while the new HSBC Asian Sevens Series will start next month in China.
Peter Wong, Chief Executive of HSBC Asia-Pacific, said: “Rugby sevens has such vast potential for growth since it has become Olympic sport, especially in the likes of China and other markets across our footprint. This synergy with our footprint combined with rugby’s strong principles and sportsmanship is one key reason why HSBC is such a major supporter of the game.
“Another reason is because we believe in encouraging potential wherever and whenever we can. Asian rugby is one area where we can see potential – in the people playing and watching the sport and in the sport itself – maturing every year and it’s incredibly exciting to be part of this. We’re seeing generation by generation across Asia becoming increasingly competitive in sports traditionally dominated by the West. It won’t be long before the notion that Asians aren’t physically competitive enough for a sport like rugby will be completely forgotten.”
Kirwan helped launch this year’s Coaching Tour in March with fellow All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu and went on to introduce the game to youngsters in Hong Kong, UAE, Thailand and Sri Lanka, as Japan played all four of their HSBC Asian 5 Nations away from home (Thailand was a neutral venue).
Scotland coach Frank Hadden, Dean Herewini of the HSBC Penguin International Academy and ARFU Development Officer Ismail Kadir all played leading roles on the Coaching Tour, which by June had also visited Macau, Korea and Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation.
“The HSBC ARFU Rugby Coaching Tour is in its second year and its main aim is to spread the word about rugby far and wide through Asia, with an emphasis on inspiring youngsters to take up the game,” said Adisak Hemyoo, President of ARFU. “The Coaching Tour has already made a huge impact in the first half of the year and we’ll build on this in the second swing as we take in a host of different markets across the continent.”
The HSBC ARFU Coaching Tour continues through July and August with an extensive programme in Hong Kong before it begins its second swing around the continent in China next month, when the HSBC Asian Sevens Series kicks off with the Shanghai Sevens before visiting Malaysia, Thailand and India.