Eric Series is the brains and financial muscle behind Singapore’s bid to host one of SuperRugby’s expansion franchises from 2016 and will be in South Africa this week to have discussions with SARU chief executive Jurie Roux.
The 18th franchise – debuting in 2016 alongside the Southern Kings and an Argentinian team – will be playing in the South African Conference and Singapore’s bid is the favourite because the Republic is firmly in their corner.
Sanzar have confirmed that Singapore and Japan are the two bidders remaining in contention, having rejected proposals from South Africa’s Mpumalanga Pumas, Namibia, Kenya, three interested parties from the United Kingdom and two from North America.
The main reason for South Africa to favour Singapore ahead of Japan is that the city-state is only a 10-and-a-half hour flight away, while the 2019 Rugby World Cup hosts are a further eight hours north-east. Flying to Australia and New Zealand from Singapore is also much easier than from Japan.
Series, a businessman who studied law and economics, has been heavily involved in rugby for the last three years through his ownership of the Asia Pacific Dragons, a Barbarians-style invitational team that showcases the talent outside of Australasia. Getting strong Pacific Islanders representation into SuperRugby would be another big attraction for Sanzar.
The 37-year-old also has major business interests in New Zealand – Sealegs, the makers of amphibious vehicles, are the “Marine” sponsors of the All Blacks and last year Series became an investor in the Chiefs. He is also the chairman of Samoa Water.
Counting against Singapore is the fact that Japan has much more of a rugby culture, the IRB (who have no say in the Sanzar decision) would obviously favour the 2019 World Cup hosts and they have much better local players and a thriving league.
But Singapore’s team would be built around Pacific Islanders, who have the physicality to survive in the most gruelling competition on earth (largely because of the travel), and Series has pointed out that there is already a precedent for getting other players in Asia involved through the Asia Pacific Dragons.
“We firmly believe that the Pacific Islands players must be strongly represented in the expanded format in 2016 and the composition of our Asia Pacific Dragons side is the ideal platform to include these players and also to capitalise on the growth in Asia,” Series told The Sunday Samoan.
“The issue has always been where the Pacific Islands team could play and how it could work commercially. This is where the Asia Pacific Dragons provides the perfect platform. Pacific Islands players are the heart of our squads, with other players being selected from the whole region.
“Sanzar have already publically stated that any new team must be competitive. That would be a given with Islanders being at the core of our squad, but we would also see the option for more Japanese players having opportunities to gain SuperRugby experience as well and create a meaningful pathway for Asian players in the future.”
Cherry Blossoms coach Eddie Jones has revealed himself as the president of the Japanese bid’s fan club and Australia are also favouring them.
The former Wallabies coach has been an eager basher of Singapore’s bid, describing it as “a joke”.
“Sanzar will lose all credibility if Singapore is selected to serve South African interests with a less demanding travel load. If travel is the deciding factor, then Dubai should be selected and rugby ethos and history ignored altogether,” Jones said.
But Sanzar have shown they are not asses when it comes to spotting the best financial deal and the deep pockets of Series, and the answer he provides to the Islander “problem”, could well see Australia isolated.
The strong support of the Singapore government, who are driving large sums of money into sports development, adds further lustre to the Series bid.
Ultimately, however, the three founding nations – South Africa, New Zealand and Australia – have to agree or else the decision will have to go to mediation, as was the case in 2009 when the Melbourne Rebels won a franchise ahead of the Southern Kings.