Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Huge chance for Singapore's sporting cause
While there may be 10 years until the 9th edition of the prestigious Rugby World Cup, there still remains a huge amount of work for Singapore to carry out should the International Rugby Board (IRB) allow hosts Japan to stage some group matches here in 2019.
As it stands right now, Japan has been awarded the 2019 hosting rights for the world’s third biggest sporting event. Part of the Japanese Rugby Union’s successful proposal to the IRB was that it was a bid not just for Japan, but for Asia as a whole, and that potentially both Singapore and Hong Kong could host a group each in the tournament.
Japan has still to put forward a required second proposal to the IRB, detailing “compelling reasons” why it should host part of the event outside its own territory.
According to Ian Bremner, the chief executive of the Singapore Rugby Union (SRU), the time frame for that is within the next couple of months.
It’s not yet clear when the IRB will come to a final decision, while they’d probably be forgiven if they put it on the backburner for now given that their number one priority at the moment is pushing for rugby sevens to be included in the Olympic Games.
What will play in Singapore’s favour, however, is that 2015 hosts England are planning to host some group matches in Wales. The birthplace of rugby is also waiting on confirmation from the IRB but if the RFU is successful, a precedent will surely be set for the following tournament.
But whatever the time frame, if Singapore is indeed given the green light by the IRB, there are a number of key issues to head up the planning process.
Putting the massive sports marketing opportunities to one side for a moment, first on the agenda is the completion of the Sports Hub. I experienced the furore in my own country when New Zealand was handed the hosting rights of the 2011 Rugby World Cup - the rugby-mad nation was split down the middle between those who wanted a new waterfront stadium in Auckland and those who wanted Eden Park redeveloped in time for the big event. The debate dragged on for months, forever stalling the actual building work.
“To be honest, the Sports Hub is definitely the first thing that needs to be organised,” Bremner said.
“In the talks that we had prior to the bid, the SCC (Singapore Sports Council) were major partners in those discussions. I think we all realise that the sports hub will happen – in what shape or form, I personally am not sure.”
Jonathan Leow, who currently heads up the sports PR and marketing team at SPRG, also raises a valid point regarding training facilities.
“I would say that is the one area that Singapore needs to step up in to host a World Cup pool. Even currently there are only two natural grass pitches actively used by the SRU, and the Singapore Cricket Club (SCC) has two more at its disposal,” he said.
He’s speaking from experience too, having previously been in charge of training grounds and pitches for both the IRB Singapore 7s in 2004 and 2005 as well as the SCC 7s.
“Having one great stadium is fine for paying fans, but at the top level teams require their training grounds to be as good as their playing areas.”
If the infrastructure is up to scratch, it then becomes about marketing the event and attracting local sponsors to get involved. On the surface, it’s easy to assume that rugby struggles to get a foothold in Singapore’s sporting scene but it’s a game that is quickly gathering momentum in the city-state.
As Bremner points out, in terms of the game locally, there are 24 schools that play rugby at Under 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19 levels. There are four universities and 12 rugby clubs, women’s polytechnic and university rugby, as well as women’s senior rugby.
So it’s clear there’s a local base of rugby people – the problem lies in the fact the national team is not involved and whether those neutral locals will be attracted to watching other international teams square off against each other.
It has been speculated that the Wallabies (the Australian national side) will play their group matches here, though nothing has yet been set in stone. It would certainly make geographical sense to draw Australian supporters (and their dollars) to Singapore, while you’d assume Hong Kong would host England and Japan would keep the All Blacks – the game’s most marketable team.
Whichever of the big rugby nations does base itself in Singapore, Leow sees attracting local sponsors to the table as a major road block, given very few view rugby as a sport with wide appeal. The tournament’s current worldwide partners are Emirates, MasterCard and Heineken.
That fact was highlighted when the proposed World Club Challenge, scheduled to be held here in July, was canned because a lack of major sponsors as well as inadequate facilities.
“Even with the Government backing this initiative, the worry for sponsors would be how much value it would be for local companies – and local sponsors are a key part I feel of the wider picture.”
The participation agreement for something as major as the Rugby World Cup carries a significant number of clauses by way of what you can and can’t do, yet Bremner says there are definite plans to get local companies on board.
“We would be building a very strong programme around it in terms of things like coaching clinics, all sorts of things. With those sorts of things, clearly there’d be an opportunity for local companies to get involved in one of the most major things to happen in Singapore in a number of years.”
Granted, Singapore does have a fair amount of time to play with if it is ultimately confirmed as a co-host for RWC 2019. But aside from hosting the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup, it won’t get a better opportunity to further push its case as the premier sports hub in Asia.