Strong backing for Singapore Super Rugby bid

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 12/07/2014
RUGBY BOSS: New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew takes a ride in one of Sealegs amphibious crafts with company chairman Eric Series (middle), the man behind a push for a Super Rugby franchise in Singapore.
CRAIG SIMCOX/FAIRFAX NZ

RUGBY BOSS: New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew takes a ride in one of Sealegs amphibious crafts with company chairman Eric Series (middle), the man behind a push for a Super Rugby franchise in Singapore.

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Pacific rugby could get a major boost if a rugby loving Frenchman is successful in setting up a Super Rugby franchise in Singapore. Toby Robson investigates.

Super Rugby's expansion dots are starting to join up.

Eric Series is the chairman of Samoa Water, a company which sells one of the Pacific Island's most pure commodities by the bottle.

He's also a rugby man. Born in France, but living in Mauritius, Series took a punt on the Chiefs last year when he became the first overseas investor in New Zealand rugby as one of the franchise's private backers.

The 37-year-old entrepreneur's interest in New Zealand rugby grew during his visits to our shores as chairman of Kiwi company Sealegs, makers of amphibious boats and an official sponsor of the All Blacks.

Series also happens to be the owner of the Asia Pacific Dragons, a barbarian styled team which started four years ago and has become the foundation for a bid to become the first Asian-based team when Super Rugby expands to 18 teams in 2016.

Early next week Sanzar will release a short list of parties it will invite to formally enter a commercial bid.

It's understood the list will include Series' proposal to base a team out of Singapore as well as a Japanese bid.

Many New Zealand rugby fans may see the mysterious ''18th team'', the Southern Kings and a new side from Argentina will also enter the competition, as much ado about nothing.

After all, those three teams will play in one of two four-team South African Conferences.

But if Series is successful, it is easy to see the Asia Pacific Dragons becoming many New Zealanders' second, or for many first, favourite professional rugby team.

That's because Samoa, Fiji and Tonga produce another pure and natural commodity of great interest to Series - professional rugby players of Pacific Island descent.

There are currently 632 such players plying their trade around the globe, a decent chunk of the 4500 professional rugby players on the planet.

As Kiwis debate whether the All Blacks should play a test in Apia, Series wants to provide a meaningful pathway for Pacific talent to play and be paid in the southern hemisphere.

''The composition of our Asia Pacific Dragons side is the ideal platform to include these players, and also to capitalise on the growth in Asia,'' he recently wrote in a letter to the Sunday Samoan.

''I don't think anyone in the world of rugby, with hand on heart, can dispute that the Pacific Islands players should not have the first option to be included.''

For those wondering if the Dragons are serious there are several points to consider.

Their most recent coach is former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga, whose next assignment will be to guide the team against the New Zealand Maori at Singapore's new air-conditioned national stadium this November.

The Dragons alumni in their short history already displays high powered links with Fiji's Rupeni Caucaunibuca and Sermaia Bai, Australian's George Smith, and Samoa's Mahonori Shwalger, Alesana Tuilagi and Kahn Fotuali'i among its ranks.

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Recent former All Blacks have included Mils Muliana, Isaac Ross and and Anthony Tuitavake.

New Zealand Players Association boss Rob Nichol says the ability to draw on a player base outside of Super Rugby's current player pool would be a major plus for any competition hopefuls.

''It's a delicate balancing act isn't it. Sanzar want to expand without eroding the strength of the competition, that's the big challenge.

''Therefore they will be looking at respective teams quite closely in terms of where they think they are going to draw their players from.

''If you are Australia, New Zealand or South Africa you will probably look a little sideways if the 18th team said they planned to grab their players from those countries.

''So if you go outside of that pool then clearly there's an opportunity to put something forward with a strong if not clear emphasis on a pathway for Pacific Island and Asian players and I wouldn't rule out players from North America and Canada who have some fine players who just need an opportunity.''

A Japan-based side could arguably hold the same appeal, but despite current Japan national coach Eddie Jones rubbishing the Singapore option, it holds one major and seemingly insurmountable advantage over its Asian rival - travel time.

It would take 22-hours to fly from Japan to South Africa and vice-versa compared to 11 hours to transit a team to and from the Republic to Singapore.

Nichol says travel is a ''major factor'' in the eyes of the players.

''I think the integrity of the competition will be tested if a team coming in from Argentina has to play 50 per cent of their games after a long haul flight and it would be further tested by having team in the Asian region having to play 50 per cent of their games away from home after a long-haul flight.

''That only exasperates the fact that you are looking at a 22-hour flight versus 11, but you don't want to preempt it because that's where innovation and smart thinking come in and you never know what the parties will bring to the table. That will be Sanzar's decision.''

Series also believes Singapore would be an ideal stop over point for teams travelling to South Africa from Australia and New Zealand, or vice versa.

He also describes Singapore as the ''gateway'' to commercial opportunities in Asia saying financial support in the region ''would not be an issue'' and that his side would be competitive from the outset.

A big win for Super Rugby may be Pacific players like currently departing Samoans Alapati Leiua, Jack Lam, and Faifili Levave remain in the competition rather than heading to Europe.

But could it also mean big money lures top All Blacks to Asia or Argentina?

Nichol says that's a possibility and said the issue of whether the All Blacks should select from within the Sanzar competition was sure to be a hot topic next time the collective is negotiated with the New Zealand Rugby Union.

- The Dominion Post

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