The British & Irish Lions departed London last night bound for Australia, via Hong Kong. Saturday’s opening tour match against the Barbarians in the economic metropolis presents the tourists with opportunities both on and off the pitch.
For Warren Gatland’s 22 players not involved in either of last weekend’s Aviva Premiership or RaboDirect PRO12, and as such are likely to form the bulk of the team at Hong Kong Stadium, it gives them a chance to impress in a bid to start the first Test in Brisbane on June 22. Whilst for the Lions brand, their visit to the city where sponsors HSBC were founded, will hopefully expand a growing commercial portfolio.
"I believe Dubai is an equally attractive stopover "
- CEO of UAE Rugby Federation, Ian Bremner
Preliminary negotiations to increase the profitability of future tours are understood to be taking place and a deal could be struck on television rights, ticket sales and hospitality by 2015.
It is an environment the Middle East wants to be involved in.
Dubai already hosts the incredibly successful Sevens tournament, attracting up to 50,000 spectators each day over the weekend and Ian Bremner, CEO of the United Arab Emirates Rugby Federation, believes the country offers similar qualities to Hong Kong.
“It represents a great opportunity for people to savour the lights of Hong Kong on their way down to Australia. It is an inviting proposition for tour operators too. I believe Dubai is an equally attractive stopover,” Bremner tells Al Jazeera English.
"Hong Kong has set a precedent in that it has hosted a couple of games between Australia and New Zealand in the last couple of years. The first of which was a big financial success the second was less so because of the global financial downturn."
The first of those games, in 2008, not only produced a 19-14 victory for the All Blacks, but also generated $8.5 million for the Australian and New Zealand Rugby Unions. Moreover, the UAE is actively looking at the possibility of acting as a halfway house for both countries on their annual trips to Europe for autumn internationals.
Bremner, who started at the Federation in 2011 after four years as the CEO of the Singapore Rugby Union, explained how anticipation for this year’s Lions tour in the region has grown over the last few years.
“In an era when there is lots of television, lots of rugby broadcast, both sevens and 15-a-side, the Lions brand still appears to shine above that. It is capturing the imagination of everyone globally and no less so here."
"A lot of expatriates work in Dubai, with both British, Irish and Australian connections. The games are being broadcast here and there will be a huge amount of interest for the tour that I think will permeate beyond the rugby community into the broader population."
"Our strategy over the next two to three years is based around growing the sport, improving standards and developing the girls’ game"
- Ian Bremner
The former Director of Rugby at Cardiff, London Irish and Exeter Chiefs in the United Kingdom highlighted the positive effect HSBC ambassadors such as ex-Australian international George Gregan and former Lion Jason Robinson are having on youngsters, as Al Jazeera’s Paul Rhys found out for himself at the end of April.
"Through coaching tours and school visits they have had an excellent impact on young people here in the game. I think that is all part and parcel of meeting current and former internationals, high profile players. It has a profound effect on young people who can see them as role models and it provides huge encouragement for them.
"Hopefully with the levels of sportsmanship and integrity that go along with the tour will motivate them to try a little a bit harder to improve," said Bremner.
A Lions match in the region maybe an attractive proposition to Bremner, but he is adamant it should be done for the right reasons: “Our strategy over the next two to three years is based around growing the sport, improving standards and developing the girls’ game.
"It is important to structure an event so it impacts on as many people as possible - so that young people get the opportunity to play in the build up to it. If the Lions were to play in the Middle East, we would want to make it into a festival of rugby instead of a a one-off game where the circus comes to town and is gone the next morning."
The Lions have not won a tour since their 2-1 series victory over South Africa in 1997, but 16 years are unlikely to pass before a successful trip to the Middle East occurs.
Max Forsyth is a freelance sports journalist - you can follow him at @maxforsyth91
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Source: Al Jazeera