Doubts dog rugby start-up

This year's Super Rugby competition was won by New Zealand side Highlanders, who are led by All Blacks star Aaron Smith (blue jersey). They beat the Hurricanes in the July 4 final.
This year's Super Rugby competition was won by New Zealand side Highlanders, who are led by All Blacks star Aaron Smith (blue jersey). They beat the Hurricanes in the July 4 final.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Japanese Super Rugby side to be co-based in S'pore hit by player and coaching problems

Uncertainty reigns amid the new Japanese Super Rugby outfit that is set to call Singapore its second home from next year.

The Straits Times has learnt that the team has signed just two players, both of whom have yet to be unveiled by the club.

Six Japanese national stars - including captain Michael Leitch - have chosen to remain with rival clubs in the prestigious southern hemisphere competition.

Furthermore, head coach Eddie Jones - who will also lead Japan at next month's Rugby World Cup - has confirmed he is in talks with South African side Stormers as he explores his job options after his contract ends in December.

Despite these uncertainties, Singapore Rugby Union (SRU) president Low Teo Ping has sought to allay fears that the off-field issues will affect Super Rugby's highly-anticipated debut here.

NO DELAY

As far as we know, the team remain on track to make their debut and play the agreed number of matches in Singapore.

LOW TEO PING, SRU president, on the reported uncertainty in the Japanese Super Rugby franchise.

As part of a historic agreement between the SRU and its Japan counterpart, the National Stadium in Kallang was earmarked to host at least three of the eight home fixtures for the new Japanese side.

This is set to be held during the first weeks of March, April and May next year, coinciding with the venue's staging of the World Rugby Sevens Series on April 16-17.

It is understood that key Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) officials were in Singapore two weeks ago to finalise a venue-hiring agreement with the Sports Hub.

Low said: "As far as we know, the team remain on track to make their debut and play the agreed number of matches in Singapore.

"I'm quite surprised to hear of the issues they're having with getting players and their coach."

The JRFU did not respond to queries from The Straits Times yesterday.

Last October, Japan edged out Singapore as the host of the first Asian franchise in Super Rugby, which expands from 15 to 18 teams when the new season kicks off in February.

The six-month long tournament used to feature five clubs each from rugby powerhouses New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. It will now include expansion teams from Japan and Argentina as well as a sixth South African franchise.

Led by All Blacks stars Aaron Smith and Ben Smith, New Zealand's Highlanders won this year's edition.

Amid reports that he has agreed a two-year deal worth US$774,000 (S$1.09 million) to coach the Stormers, Jones told Japanese media yesterday that he was "chatting" with the Cape Town-based team and merely "exploring my options" after his current contract ends.

The former Australia national coach is rumoured to be unhappy with the JRFU over its lack of signings for the Super League side, forcing the cancellation of the as-yet-unnamed outfit's unveiling ceremony in June.

Japan's domestic Top League teams - who are all backed by major corporations offering lucrative contracts with off-field careers - are also refusing to release players for Super Rugby action. In contrast, the new Argentinian team have already signed 20 of their national players.

With many big names already snapped up by their rivals, the Japanese face a race against time to register at least 23 players by year-end. They failed to meet the initial deadline on June 30.

A spokesman for South African, New Zealand and Australian Rugby (Sanzar) said it is working through a "number of key areas" with the JRFU as part of its ongoing monitoring of Super Rugby expansion teams.

It added: "We will continue to work closely with the national union as it strives to meet criteria to prepare for introduction to the competition in 2016."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2015, with the headline 'DOUBTS DOG RUGBY START-UP'. Print Edition | Subscribe