SUPER RUGBY

Singapore welcomes Super Rugby

The ever-expanding Super Rugby competition makes its first stop in Singapore this weekend as organisers bid to break the Asian market.

Singapore welcomes Super Rugby
DAN PELED EFE

Despite fears over extended travel times, tropical heat and a questionable pitch Singapore is going to be hosting Super Rugby this weekend.

Japanese newcomers the Sunwolves, who have played only once so far, have made the nearly eight-hour trip from Tokyo to face the Cheetahs, who have flown 11 hours from Bloemfontein.

Saturday's game is one of three 'home' fixtures in Singapore for the Sunwolves as rugby continues its bid for Asian fans, especially in the build-up to the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Singapore will also host a leg of the world sevens series next month in its retractable-roofed, air-cooled National Stadium, which seats 55,000.

Brendan Morris, operations manager for Super Rugby organisers SANZAAR, admitted the shift to steamy Singapore wasn't easy for the teams, but he was confident the venture would be a success.

'Any expansion comes with both challenge and opportunity. One of the biggest challenges is a little bit more travel into new markets and the teams will adapt to that,' Morris said.

He added: 'You've got to look at the commercial opportunities, the rugby opportunities and the logistical challenges around expansion. The combination of Japan and Singapore was very attractive.'

The Sunwolves and Argentina's Jaguares are among three new teams added to the now 18-strong competition which now straddles six countries, including Singapore.

Super Rugby - Sharks vs JaguaresStephan Lewies of the Sharks wins ball in line out from Guido Petti Pagadizabal of the Jaguares during the 2016 Super Rugby.

Singapore organisers will be keen to show they can provide a suitable pitch, which was slammed by visiting football teams before undergoing a revamp last year.

Ticket sales will also be closely watched, as well as the heat and humidity in the city-sized, equatorial state where temperatures top 30 degrees C (86 degrees F) year-round.

'Player welfare is a major concern in everything we do,' said Morris, adding: 'We've got a closed roof, there's climate-control.

'Our players are used to working in all sorts of climatic conditions. It's going to be a challenge here on Saturday night, there's no doubt about it.'

Elsewhere the top-of-the-table clash in South Africa pits the Western Stormers against the Coastal Sharks, with both teams gunning to stay unbeaten.

Last week's 20-10 win over the Cheetahs was the first time the Stormers had left Bloemfontein with a win since 2012, but coach Robbie Fleck still called it a 'frustrating' performance.

'The Stormers are quite similar to us in how they want to play and their forward pack is highly respected,' said assistant coach Robert du Preez.

'We are under no illusions as to what lies in wait for us.'

The Golden Lions, who have started with away wins in Japan and New Zealand, face reigning champions the Highlanders in Dunedin.

The round starts on Friday with Tana Umaga again rejigging the Auckland Blues, this time making seven changes, to face last year's runners-up the Wellington Hurricanes.

The 'Canes, still searching for their first win, have been bolstered by the return of Nehe Milner-Skudder, while Cory Jane is on the bench after recovering from concussion.

In Australia, the ACT Brumbies should be too much for the Western Force, despite their win over the Queensland Reds last week which cost coach Richard Graham his job.