The match will probably not be a sellout, organisers conceded on Wednesday, but the arrival of the British and Irish Lions in Hong Kong for the first time has once again cast the spotlight on a region many see as vital for the future of rugby.

Over 30,000 Lions fans are expected to visit Australia for the three-test tour but not enough of the red-shirted horde decided to stop over in Hong Kong to fill the stadium for Saturday's opening match against the Barbarians.

"There are still a lot of people buying tickets, so we're hoping the stadium will get to about three-quarters full," said Trevor Gregory, chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union (HKRFU).

With 15-a-side, to have the best of the British Isles rugby play here, there's no better way to spread the word

Rob Howley, Lions assistant coach

Gregory, citing a smaller than expected crowd of Lions fans, said at last check, about 26,000 tickets had sold for the Hong Kong venue, which seats 40,000. 

But the aim behind the Hong Kong stop, while making some logistical and commercial sense for the Lions, was to further efforts to spread rugby across Asia, according to the organisers.

"With 15-a-side, to have the best of the British Isles rugby play here, there's no better way to spread the word," said Lions assistant coach Rob Howley at a Hong Kong press conference on Wednesday.

HSBC are joint title sponsors of the city's famous annual sevens tournament, also held at the Hong Kong Stadium where the Lions will run out on Saturday.  

Sponsorship and television rights for the Barbarians match are expected to net $15.64 million, according to Britain's Daily Telegraph. 

Previous attempts to spread the word of the elite 15-aside game in this former British colony were made with Bledisloe Cup tests between rugby New Zealand and Australia in 2008 and 2010.

The latter match was marked by rows of empty seats, however, even if a thrilling game was decided by a late try and conversion by Australia's James O'Connor.

Attempts to spread sports in east Asia from the top down have often struggled, though in Hong Kong and other parts of across the region, rugby has shown signs of growth.

Gregory, who is also the vice president of the Asia Rugby Football Union, said the union now has 28 countries, adding two to three per year. Only four countries were part of the original ARFU.

The build up of Asian rugby is expected to be boosted by China's national games now including rugby sevens ahead of the sport's introduction at the 2014 Olympics and by Japan, who dominate the Asian Five Nations, hosting the 2019 rugby World Cup.

"This is not a purely commercial exercise," Robbie McRobbie, head of rugby operations for the HKRFU, said of the Lions' visit.

"Asia is a very significant market for rugby in terms of growing the game."

Source: Reuters