Hong Kong rugby’s governing body said on Monday a lack of foreign interest was to blame for the poor turnout at this year’s prestigious Bledisloe Cup clash between Australia and New Zealand.
The fourth and final Test, won 26-24 with the last kick by Australia at the weekend, was widely hailed as the most exciting meeting of the world’s top two sides for a decade, but a crowd of just 26,000 turned out to watch the action in the 40,000-capacity Hong Kong Stadium.
Many fans were thought to have baulked at the eye-watering ticket prices, ranging from HK$880 to HK$1,250 (US$130 to US$160) for adults.
But the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union said around the same number of tickets had been sold locally this year as in 2008, when the series last came to the southern Chinese city, playing to a near-capacity crowd.
“We are missing several thousand travellers as compared to 2008,” Sean Moore, the union’s Bledisloe Cup spokesman, said.
“In that year there were approximately 7,000 official travel packages sold – this year, far less than 1,000. If we add that to this year’s attendance we would be at or near 32,000 or 33,000, with travellers from Asia making up the difference in 2008 to get us to 36,000 which was our attendance in that year.
“I think it is a mix of economics and World Cup 2011 planning that depressed the international travel market this year.”
All Black assistant coach Steve Hansen said in the run-up to the game the lack of interest was down to Aussies and Kiwis staying away rather than a failure of the project to spread rugby union to Asia.
“The difference is Australians and New Zealanders aren’t travelling to come and watch the game,” he said.
“The recession is probably a good part to do with that. But I don’t think it’s fair to dump it on the locals.”
Hansen also attributed the low numbers of travelling fans to the September 4 Christchurch earthquake, the most destructive to hit New Zealand in 80 years, which left thousands of people with repair work to do on their homes.
The New Zealand and Australian unions have treated the Asian Tests as a potential cash cow after the success of 2008 which generated a reported HK$2-million for each nation, with even bigger financial rewards thought to have come from Tokyo last year.
But there will only be two Bledisloe Tests as part of a scaled-down Tri-Nations series next year because of the World Cup in New Zealand, and there are no plans to bring the cup back to Asia.
“I hope the game will come back to Hong Kong but it should be a few years yet,” Moore said.
The British and Irish Lions plan to play a Barbarians side in June 2013 in Hong Kong, where there is a large expatriate British and Irish community.
Moore said: “Hong Kong is still perceived as a very viable rugby market for both fifteens and sevens.”