Rugby is getting a new festival event next year to kick-off the season in style – in the scorching hot league paradise of Brisbane. But what’s it all about, and why do we need it? Tim Murphy spent 48 hours among the tatts, T-shirts and thongs to find out.
They don’t do things by halves at Duco, the Kiwi events management company that has just launched the Brisbane Global Tens rugby tournament.
Note the Global. Not for Duco some hemispheric, regional or Oceania-only set-up. This is the outfit that manages heavyweight boxer Joseph Parker and sees him challenging for the world title as early as next year. They also founded the Auckland Nines league tournament.
David Higgins, Dean Lonergan and Martin Snedden run on a combo of smooth talk and gut instincts, and seem to be variously thought of as cowboys or geniuses. Certainly, Higgins recognises the ‘cowboys’ line and laughs it off heartily. They sniff out opportunity and so far have banked the riches of giving people what they want.
Their latest trick is ‘global’ in that it includes all ten New Zealand and Australian Super Rugby franchises plus the great French club Toulon, the South African Super Rugby finalists the Bulls, the Samoa national side and Panasonic Wild Knights of Japan.
The 10-a-side tournament will run on the weekend of February 10-11 at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. It will be a case of global warming, too, with Brisbane at its hottest (an average low of 22 and high of 28) and the cricket season still in full flight.
The teams, the time of year, the venue and the pubs and clubs of Caxton St will mean a fearsomely attractive weekend for rugby diehards, stag weekends and sun worshippers.
But what does it do for rugby? Who needs another commitment, early travel and the risk of injuries or worse, pre-season on-tour scandal?
Leading CEOs, marketers and team management from the New Zealand franchises were all in Brisbane at the weekend to join the Aussies and a Wild Knight from Tokyo for a pre-tournament familiarisation.
And the Kiwis were pretty united in welcoming a chance to get their sides across the ditch for a week, loosen up before the Super season, and even blend in pre-season matches that week.
In a way, it will become the launch event for Super Rugby in these two countries. The broadcasters in Australia have yearned for a high-profile starting point and it looks like this could deliver.
It could be, with so many sides in one place, that the pre-NPC innovation of playing one half against one team and a second half against another will be on offer for our sides in the Super Rugby pre-season games around the tournament.
Each side can bring 26 players, with 18 kitted out for each game, but the Blues for example might transport all 40 so their week’s preparation continues uninterrupted.
Tens offers something beyond the Sevens that will have happened at national level in Wellington and Sydney in the weeks beforehand. The format also allows some of the ‘fatties’ up front to also play, given it has scrums and lineouts. A bit more oomph and pressure.
The timing, says Blues manager Richard Fry, is good in that players returning from injury like Rene Ranger should be able to get a series of decent hit-outs in a competitive environment. He expects the Blues to field a number of stars, including some of their All Blacks who they ‘get back’ from All Black stand-downs in late January. “We’ve got to ease them in, so a bit of game time here would be good. We want to give it a good nudge.”
It might be a long-shot for Blues recruit Sonny Bill Williams to be fit in time to return to Suncorp. His injury from the Sevens at the Rio Olympics was expected to take six to nine months to heal. February will be bang-on six months and while you wouldn’t bet against him, given his professionalism and determination, the SBW factor might have to wait until 2018.
But there will be plenty of All Black stars. Hamish Riach, CEO of the Crusaders, predicted a good turnout and representatives of the Highlanders, Chiefs and Hurricanes expect the same.
And the host team, the Queensland Reds, is likely to roll out Taniela Tupou, aka the Tongan Thor, the 140kg kid-prop who stunned Auckland schoolboy rugby two seasons ago before signing with the Brisbane team.
It is a game for all shapes and sizes. The Blues won the now defunct Singapore World 10s three seasons ago with a side which included Ofa Tu’unga fasi and Piri Weepu.
Tens is not, then, a brand new concept. The IRB had a set of rules on the shelf when Brisbane went calling. In fact they had a big tourney in Queensland 20 years ago, the Ballymore Tens, won by Fiji. And there’s a weekend event in Mauritius.
So in February there will be something like 300 players and – if Tourism Queensland and the organisers get their way – many thousands of fans from New Zealand and interstate. Brisbane is many things – steamy, weathered, bogan, brash – but it has got its sports, food and drinking culture in perfect alignment. The Caxton St strip just up from Suncorp puts Auckland’s Kingsland and the Viaduct into a small town lens. And the drinks choices within the stadium offer respite from the beers with a Bundy and coke.
The great drinking establishments of the Normanby at Redhill, the Breakfast Creek Hotel and the Story Bridge Hotel have been magnets for sports teams and cricket and league fans on tour forever.
Queensland Reds chief executive Richard Barker says Super Rugby’s “never really had a proper launch. Fans have been crying out for there to be a season starter. For us Brisbane will be the talk of global rugby every year for the next four years. We will be the epicentre, which we would not have been this time last year.”
He compares this to the Big Bash events so successful for domestic Australian cricket, which delivered a new audience for the sport. “The Brisbane Global 10s has the chance to introduce our game to a new audience and give them a product that’s a bit more exciting.”
The boys at Duco, love them or hate them, reckon they know how to make things sizzle. They’ve got Rachel Carroll, who was instrumental in some of the best innovations for the Rugby World Cup 2011 in Auckland, as their Australian chief and they are talking the Tens up big-time in its impact for Brisbane tourism and for Queensland.
But there’s risk. It is a multi-million dollar enterprise and needs the mighty Suncorp Stadium to be heaving with people for both days – in a league town that at that time of the year might be at the cricket, the beach or the pub.
For Kiwis who stay at home there’s one light on the horizon. The TV rights to the Tens are yet to be decided and while Sky has the Sanzar Super and international rights, this is not covered by that deal. It could well be that rugby – smaller and hotter – graces a free-to-air channel in New Zealand for the first time in an age.
Tim Murphy spent the weekend in Brisbane hosted by the Brisbane Global Tens tournament organisers.