The great Canberra race to China has officially begun, the ACT Brumbies in negotiations to take Super Rugby to the most populated country in the world.
Fairfax Media can reveal the Brumbies are going head-to-head with cross-code rivals the Canberra Raiders to be the first to break into the lucrative Chinese, looking at the potential of pre-season matches – then eventually a Super Rugby game – in Guangzhou, which has a population of 9 million.
The Brumbies signed the biggest major sponsorship deal in the club's history last week, a six-year, $8 million partnership with Hong Kong-based Aquis.
The Raiders, sponsored by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, have been working with the Manly Sea Eagles for almost three years to take a game to China, but talks have stalled because a lack of NRL support.
The Brumbies are poised to swoop on the NRL's failure and secure a deal, with the club's chief executive Michael Jones, coach Stephen Larkham and Aquis officials already trying to fast-track the project.
"I've been on record saying I want to make the Brumbies a world-class organisation ... We're definitely keen to pursue a game in China, we've mentioned it to [Aquis general manager] Justin Fung to see where their draw will be," Jones said.
"We're absolutely linked to the Canberra community, but we want to become a global brand and to do that we need to go wider and start to grow a fan base elsewhere. If we can tie that into our sponsorship, fantastic.
"We're investigating it as we speak. We'd look at doing two games over four days and do it with a potential Japanese team and a New Zealand team."
Aquis, which has also acquired the licence for a Canberra casino revamp, is based in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has been put forward as a potential location for the Asian fixture, with Singapore also on the radar given Singapore Airlines is likely to start flying directly to the Canberra airport.
The Brumbies have already touched base with the Cape Town Stormers and the Wellington Hurricanes about their potential involvement, while a Japan team will enter Super Rugby for the first time next year.
The Brumbies were negotiating with several major sponsor options before finalising their deal with Aquis. Negotiations included the potential of one overseas pre-season fixture, with a game in the Middle East also on the radar.
If the move to China is successful, the Brumbies will consider taking a regular-season game to Asia, but not at the expense of a home game in a shortened season from next year.
Guangzhou is the largest city of the Guangdong province with a population of almost 9 million and located about 120 kilometres north of Hong Kong.
"We need to dip our toe in the water first in regards to having a trial and then seeing what the expanded competition is like next year... I think it's viable," Jones said.
"I don't know if we would want it as one of our home games in a season when we only have seven home games. We're definitely talking about it next year. [Larkham] and I have already spoken about it and we've already thrown it out to various teams to see if they would be interested.
"I've done a fair bit of stuff in China with the Olympic sailing so I have some contacts and Justin has some pretty good business contacts there through [Aquis]."
It's understood the Australian Rugby Union was planning a pre-season Australian tournament in Brisbane similar to the NRL's version of the Auckland Nines. But it is now unlikely to go ahead, paving the way for the Brumbies to explore their options in China.
The Brumbies kick-started their Super Rugby season with a 47-3 annihilation of the Queensland Reds at Canberra Stadium on Friday night.