Asia Rugby Grand League 2024 – What We Know and What We Hope For
After a period of teaser social media posts and videos to garner media attention for the first pan-Asian professional rugby union club competition – the Asia Rugby Grand League (ARGL) – the first semic-concrete details for the inaugural tournament were confirmed, with the tournament set to be played in May 2024.
Who Will Play in the Asia Rugby Grand League?
Over the weekend of 4th February 2023, Asia Rugby gathered the heads of 12 of the targeted rugby unions in the region for meetings in Singapore to discuss the ARGL. In attendance were the Union Presidents and CEOs of Singapore, Hong Kong, UAE, China, Thailand, South Korea, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Pakistan, Japan, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
Asia Rugby confirmed the first season of the Asia Rugby Grand League would only include 4 Union clubs, with the goal of expanding the competition to 12 clubs by 2027, which is when the Men’s Rugby World Cup takes place in Australia.
The initially invited four Unions are Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia (which are the four nations in the top tier of the Men’s Asia Rugby Championship).
Some media reported initial plans would see the ARGL feature eight clubs in the first edition of the newly conceived Grand League, but this also highlights the problem with media today trying to get a scoop and publishing unverified facts.
This was also the first strong hint that this professional rugby union league would be a men’s league, a topic, which as far as we understand, had yet to be addressed. We will come to this later, but there is a strong argument for this first groundbreaking league to be a women’s league in Asia.
Asia Rugby also confirmed that the concept and initial format were discussed with those present at the meeting, with Asia Rugby President, Qais Al Dhalai saying “ARGL has been developed to outline our strategic and key performance goals, leading to a high-performance clubs rugby tournament that will help grow the fifteens aside game in Asia and benefit national teams in the future to compete at a high-performance level.”
In addition, the region’s governing body wants the ARLG to be “a world-class club rugby league to ensure a robust, sustainable, and commercially viable future for the game.”
Professional Rugby in Asia – Where Can Lessons Be Learned
Aside from the current Japan Rugby League One (which is not fully professional for all players), there is no other pro league on the continent.
Hong Kong Rugby Union (South China Tigers), Malaysia (Malaysia Valke), and Singapore Rugby Union (Asia Pacific Dragons) all had brief experiences in the short-lived Global Rapid Rugby which was largely bankrolled by Australian Andrew Foster from 2019 to 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to the regional league.
The Sunwolves from Japan also had a brief stint in Super Rugby before being axed.
The lessons from these unions and other current new rugby union leagues around the globe should lay the blueprint for a successful foundation of the ARLG.
Most notably, the new Premier Rugby Sevens in the USA, the URC with teams from Europe and South Africa, the Rugby Europe Super Cup which features clubs from so-called “second tier rugby nations in Europe”, and of course the 2023 Super Rugby Americas which kicks of on February 18, 2023, and includes teams from South and North America, and is believed to be a strong influence on the format of the Asia Rugby Grand League.
Innovation and Technology – ARLG
Asia Rugby plans to implement “innovative technology in the likes of artificial intelligence and experimentation with law variations.”
There are also plans to “partner with major international and local commercial partners to secure the necessary funding, including broadcasting and media rights, merchandise sales, and other commercial activities.”
The Asia Rugby Grand League has the opportunity to showcase some of the best Asian rugby talents but playing too much with law variations is not something we are a fan of. It’s proven to often not work and this ARGL has the opportunity to educate a whole new audience on the sport and its laws, trying to implement law variations will only further add confusion.
There are already several potential tech partners who already operate in the region and could offer players the chance to play abroad. These include FirstPoint USA which is a US Sports Scholarship & University Admissions service which already operates offices in Dubai, Singapore, Mumbai, and Shanghai. They also held a special US rugby scholarship trial at the GEMS Metropole School in the UAE on Sunday 5th February 2023.
Will more players look to follow the actions of Dinesvaran “Duke” Krishnan, who became the first Malaysian to join the MLR (Major League Rugby) in the USA by signing with the newly formed Chicago Hounds (who’s founders also have connections to Asia), and use the ARGL as a launchpad for their professional careers?
Other potential partners could include:
- A service like PlayWize aims to “connect Athletes, Agents, Teams, Schools, Brands and Universities from across the globe” and also covers leading tech in sports and rugby.
- Or a platform like Matchkit which has been used to great effect by South American rugby clubs and players.
- How will the Asia Rugby Grand League look to provide a fan-engaging platform which will show all matches in all regions in Asia and beyond? Will they have looked at the implications of NFT (Non-Fungible Token) ticketing and fan engagement, metaverse experiences, digital innovation, or LUCRATIVE ad patch programs?
- One report suggests that the number of digital consumers will rise to 88% of the total population of 15-year-olds and above by 2027 in Southeast Asia with the top activities including watching video content.
- The CEO of SportPro Media confirmed recently that Mastercard launched a sports economy index analysing the interests of sports fans and technology. Among the findings was that 61% say tech plays a major role in their enjoyment of sports and that 43% watch more sports on social media than on television.
Who will fund the Asia Rugby Grand League?
It will be interesting to hear what financial model and funding will be used for the Asia Rugby Grand League.
If the franchise model is to be implemented, who will have the financial burden, will the aforementioned Unions need to front up with funding or seek private partners? Many have lamented the lack of funds already made available to them to contest the Asia Rugby competitions and grassroots should take preference from any Union’s budget in our opinion.
Is World Rugby funding the ARGL?
Malaysia Rugby has been the only Union so far to give an approximation of the costs, and as one of the four invited Unions has yet to make a commitment saying:
“One of the issues is money as it will cost more than a million RM (about USD $250,000) to prepare a solid team for the ARGL. ARGL allows teams to hire foreign players which is costly, especially those from New Zealand, Australia or other nations (with similar standards). We also need to look for sponsors and this will take time. We are not sure whether Asia Rugby will give us any subsidy for ARGL.”
We have always thought that the region, which boasts the highest concentration of billionaires in the world (believed to be close to 1000 by the end of 2022) should have more financial benefactors. It also brings into play how the funding and the monitoring of the spending and where the money comes from will be assessed by Asia and World Rugby.
Many of the top football clubs in the region, for example, are bankrolled by extremely wealthy people and families, which carries its own pros and cons.
Why Not a Professional Women’s League in Asia?
World Rugby’s global strategy to grow the women’s game is detailed in the “2015-25 Women’s Plan”, but Asia Rugby has often been quick to point out this region as one of the fastest growing and best represented in the women’s game. They also often highlight their own commitment to gender equity at the committee level – so it seems it would be a prime opportunity to operate one of the few professional women’s rugby union championships on the planet.
In 2021, three Asian countries featured in the World’s Top 20 for registered players; Japan, Sri Lanka and China. On the topic of a pro league in Asia, Ada Milby also previously told us: “The bridge to the international level is much smaller and Unions have a better chance to have a team perform on the top level in women’s rugby.”
With the WXV kicking off in 2023, a women’s professional league could be a fantastic feeder to national teams, increase exposure, and attract top talent who could help develop Asian players.
To be fair, in terms of reaching Rugby World Cups, the women’s game in Asia has also been better represented with a number of teams reaching the tournaments in the past (Japan, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan) and with the future expansion of the RWC 2025, there is a good chance multiple Asian teams will be present. In the Men’s game, only Japan has featured from Asia at Rugby World Cups.
Politics in Rugby
Asia, we think, is one of the most exciting regions in the world to monitor and write about rugby. There is nowhere with more diversity and this also brings its fair share of challenges. Also, the vast scale of the continent and how it’s under-resourced in developing the sport are constant thorns in the development of the game.
At Asis Rugby EXCO levels, the governing body tries to paint a unified picture but it’s not always as it seems. We have been privy to see far too many anonymously sent emails and correspondence between the governing body and the unions to suggest that many decisions are not unanimously agreed upon.
Its politics, and it is understandable and not unique to Asia, but getting a unified agreement on how the Asia Rugby Grand League will be put into play and supported by all concerned will be fascinating.
There are egos too, and the success of the professional rugby union era across Asia will need to see egos placed to the side, with the sport’s future and growth at the core. Only time will tell if that can be achieved.
Asian Rugby Tournaments 2023
- World Rugby U20 Championships 2023-2024.
- Asia Rugby – Partial 2023 Tournament Calendar
- Best International 2023 Rugby Tournaments In Asia.
- Best Social 2023 Rugby Tournaments In Asia.