SINGAPORE - As Super Rugby expands beyond the Southern Hemisphere by entering Japan and Singapore this year, South African, New Zealand and Australian Rugby's (Sanzar) chief executive Andy Marinos believes their presence will help develop the sport in this region.
The South African, who returned as chief executive officer of tournament organisers Sanzar at the start of the year following his first stint between 2008 and 2010, said the organisation has noted the increased appetite for the sport in Asia, a sign of the sport's growing popularity in the region.
The 43-year-old was speaking on Saturday morning, ahead of the match between South Africa's Cheetahs and the Sunwolves, who are co-based in Japan and Singapore and are Asia's first franchise in the 18-team Super Rugby league.
Pointing to the first-ever Sunwolves game two weeks ago in Tokyo, which was played in front of a sell-out 25,000 crowd, he said: "That opening weekend was unbelievable. It certainly set a benchmark for rugby in Asia. It's a clear indication (to everyone) across the whole competition that there is an appetite for it (rugby) in Japan.
"And I think that's the challenge all Super Rugby franchises have had to face over the (past) couple of years. The match attendances have tended to go the wrong way. So it's positive now to see a new demographic coming to the game and supporting it."
But crowd figures for the Sunwolves matches at the 55,000-capacity National Stadium will not be an indicator of success for Marinos.
"I'm aware that we're going to have more empty than full seats (here). But for me, it's about the product on the field, getting in, establishing rugby as a sport in the market and the enjoyment that people get out of it."
"We're fully aware it's a non-traditional product among Singaporeans. Once people get accustomed and used to it, and you see the benefit of having some of the best players in the world playing in your backyard, that's got value and that's something we're going to build on.
While he admitted that Singapore is "not a traditional rugby market," he does not rule out the possibility that the Republic could groom a professional rugby player in time to come.
"I don't think right now there's a high concentration of home-grown players. But if you can start getting some local guys, bring them through and develop them, who knows, in five to 10 years, a Singapore national would be good enough to earn a place in a Super Rugby team. That is a long-term objective.
"It's no secret that Asia and South-east Asia are very much on our radar. That's why we have a presence here and a team (the Sunwolves) based in Japan and Singapore. When they (the teams) come here, they take part in developmental clinics and transfer of skills (with the local players)."
On Friday night, the national rugby team had a combined training session conducted by Sunwolves coach Mark Hammett at the Yio Chu Kang Stadium.
The game against the Cheetahs on Saturday will be the Sunwolves' first of three matches to be played at Kallang. The team will return to the National Stadium on March 26 (v Bulls) and May 14 (v Stormers).