Global Rapid Rugby, the brainchild of Australian businessman and philanthropist Andrew Forrest, is set to explode onto the calendar with an innovative platform for the development of rugby in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
Eight teams are set to participate in the inaugural campaign, which will begin in February and comprise 14 rounds of fixtures.
With all of the teams fighting for a first prize of A$1m over a 16-week period, the tournament will be rapid in name and nature.
But the heart of Rapid Rugby is a fresh approach to the game itself.
Matches will be shortened by 10 minutes to 70-minute contests, with two halves of 35 minutes each. Moreover, new and revised rules – including rolling substitutions, reducing line-outs and a nine-point Power Try – aim to ensure ball-in-play time increases from rugby’s current average of about 46 per cent to upward of 55 per cent.
The aim is to promote attacking, high-scoring rugby, and although international federations are usually reluctant to endorse significant format changes to their sports from third parties, the World Rugby Council has sanctioned the tournament.
“Like all sports, rugby needs to evolve,” Forrest says. “The modern sports public is spoilt for choice and demands easily digestible, fast-paced action.
“I think Rapid Rugby is the perfect name for this competition. It speaks to what we will deliver – a dynamic sports and entertainment concept focused on the fastest growing region in the world.”
Rapid Rugby will be governed by the Hong Kong Rugby Union, which will contribute one of the teams, with others set to represent Fiji, Malaysia, Samoa, Singapore and Australia. Talks are ongo-ing with the Japan Rugby Football Union for a leading team from the country to participate, while further discussions are taking place with a private consortium to establish another team with an exotic flavour.
Perth-based Western Force, with an established fan base following more than a decade in Super Rugby, will boost the profile of the competition, as will up to 20 marquee players who will be signed up over the first two years to add star quality across the teams.
According to the tournament’s head of rugby, the former Australia national team player and Western Force captain Matt Hodgson, Rapid Rugby is already in talks with representatives of “a number of very big names” for both the 2019 and 2020 editions, with several key targets having contracts that expire at the end of 2019.
“Our marquee players will be centrally contracted and placed with teams that need their specific talent and experience,” he says.
Rapid Rugby’s launch is timely, especially as the eyes of the rugby world turn towards Japan for the first Rugby World Cup to take place in Asia next year.
Hodgson hopes that Rapid Rugby can “provide an early taste of the incredible spectacle to come” at the Rugby World Cup “and, in turn, become an exciting option for thousands of sports and entertainment fans who have tasted the game for the first time and want more”.
He adds: “Our action-packed, easily digestible product is what the modern-day sports lover demands, not just in Asia but right around the world. Rapid Rugby complements traditional rugby in established markets and in emerging markets like Asia it’s the perfect entrée card to the future.”
HKRU chief executive Robbie McRobbie highlights the “record numbers of boys and girls” taking up the game and pinpoints the “breathtaking” potential of expanding into countries like China and India.
According to the tournament’s chief executive officer, Brad Paatsch, the plan is for Rapid Rugby to have expanded into those two countries by 2023, while a second Australian team in 2020 is critical, with only “domestic rugby politics” having thwarted Western Sydney’s participation in the inaugural competition.
“Global Rapid Rugby is a long-term play. This is not about making a quick return, not at all,” Paatsch says.
“The plan was always for the competition to begin with six to eight teams and grow to 12 or more within five years. The UAE, Sri Lanka, Korea and New Zealand are all on the drawing board for new teams.”
In keeping with the concept of the tournament, Rapid Rugby has devised a 90-minute broadcast package, which was presented to potential partners at Sportel Monaco in October.
“We were blown away by the reception,” Paatsch says, explaining how the shorter matches – including a slightly reduced half-time break – allows for a streamlined coverage slot.
Leading ticketing agent Zoonga has been appointed as Rapid Rugby’s official ticketing partner and will take advice from participating clubs about appropriate pricing strategies.
For match days, Rapid Rugby is adopting a hands-on role in developing supplementary entertainment to enhance the overall in-stadium fan experience.
“We are aiming to do for rugby what T20 has done for cricket,” Paatsch says. “We will incorporate the culture of the home team into our match-day presentation, games will be full of music, lights, and fireworks to engage the crowd, plus all venues will have a match-day MC who will entertain and educate before, during and after each match. Site visits are currently being completed to look at finalising the areas at each venue for Kid Zone and Fan Zone precinct activations.”
In spite of the focus on innovations, organisers are determined not to lose sight of the importance of engaging established rugby fans.
“We take our responsibility to grow the game extremely seriously,” Paatsch says. “We will work with home clubs and their governing bodies to deliver curtain-raiser matches involving junior rugby clubs and assist them in growing and developing the game.”
The clubs will have a significant amount of commercial autonomy, with the ability to manage their own partnerships with “more than half of the shared commercial real estate at their disposal,” Paatsch says.
“Rapid Rugby will commercialise the remainder through key properties including principal partner, exclusive competition partners and supply partners like airline and accommodation,” he adds.
“Through the creative application of virtual technology, clever in-broadcast positioning and alignment, plus the courage to rip up the rule book and look for new ways to communicate with the viewing audience, anything is possible. We are confident integrating sponsorship with innovative broadcast offerings like real-time player audio, tactical time-outs, in-match interviews, social media engagement and cutting-edge science will produce excellent results.”
With Rapid Rugby in start-up mode, it is able to centralise and aggregate commercial rights, providing greater scope for partners and consistency in the collection and use of data.
As an example, Paatsch says, on-field apparel and merchandise will be aggregated across the competition from 2020.
“This will provide an attractive property for an international supplier, streamline the administration process for clubs and enable us to develop a deep understanding of our fans’ wants and needs across the whole region,” he says.
Rapid Rugby is underpinned by the belief that it is providing what a modern, mobile audience demands. With a blank canvas and content control, Rapid Rugby can tailor its media and commercial offering to drive the product according to future trends rather than current norms.
For example, according to the team behind Rapid Rugby, international consumer research has listed rugby union among the top six growth sports in the next five years, with esports sitting at the top of the rankings. The prospect of the two sports combining in the coming years is unquestionably intriguing.
Paatsch describes Rapid Rugby as an “investment in community” and the “development of the Asia-Pacific region” by Forrest. “Andrew loves rugby and wants it to succeed,” Paatsch concludes. “He also knows Asia is the future of the sport and is in the position to help bring the two together.”