Let’s ruck and roll: Japan wakes up to the arrival of rugby giants

The Rugby World Cup megastore in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district is doing a brisk business in official merchandise. Wallabies and All Blacks T-shirts have sold out, a shop assistant says, glancing down at two sets of empty shelves. Spotting the flag emblazoned on a miniature rugby ball in the Guardian’s basket, she quickly adds: “The England shirts are selling really well, too.”

The warm and sustained blast of omotenashi hospitality directed at visiting teams and their supporters this week in Japan has almost made it possible to forget that much of the tournament’s success will depend on the hosts, who begin their campaign in the opening fixture against Russia on Friday in front of a TV audience organisers say could reach 40 million – just under a third of the country’s population.

The Welsh squad were serenaded with a rousing rendition of Land of My Fathers by 15,000 people at a training session; the All Blacks have been treated to enough displays of the haka to sustain them during the next six weeks of rugby; and an ear-splitting performance of taiko drumming should have blown away any post-flight cobwebs among the English contingent.

As it prepares for the opening fixture, the stakes could hardly be higher for Japan, both as a team and host of the first World Cup to be held in Asia.

World Rugby had already taken a gamble a decade ago when it awarded the 2019 event to Japan, whose long association with the sport has never been matched by its achievements in the international arena.

Wales’s team work out in front of spectators in Kitakyushu, western Japan

Wales’s team work out in front of spectators in Kitakyushu, western Japan before the Rugby World Cup begins. Photograph: AP

Before the last tournament in 2015, hosted by England, the Brave Blossoms had only ever won one World Cup match, against Zimbabwe in 1991, and lost every other by an average of 48 points, including a crushing 145-17 defeat at the hands of the All Blacks in 1995.

Japanese rugby didn’t properly announce its arrival as a serious international proposition until 2015 when Eddie Jones’s men became the first team in World Cup history to win three matches yet fail to advance to the knockout stages. Those victories included an astonishing 34-32 defeat of South Africa in Brighton. Four years on, it seems incredible to recall that the match wasn’t shown on terrestrial TV in Japan.

Rugby World Cup Japan mascots Ren-G at the Kamaishi Restoration Stadium

Rugby World Cup Japan mascots Ren-G at the Kamaishi Restoration Stadium. Photograph: Koki Nagahama/Getty Images

What happened next should calm any 11th-hour nerves over how much domestic interest the 2019 incarnation will generate. Having been denied live coverage of the Springboks shock, Japanese TV viewers set a tournament record, with 25 million watching the team’s next match, a 26-5 win over Samoa.

After years of struggling to emerge from the shadow of next summer’s Tokyo Olympics, the World Cup has finally penetrated the public consciousness. Almost all of the 1.8m tickets have been sold, with the organising committee president, Fujio Mitarai, confidently predicting that all 48 games will be played in packed stadiums.

The 12 match venues have been shared among rugby heartlands in Kamaishi and Osaka, but also cities such as Kobe and Fukuroi, where the sport barely registered a couple of years ago.

Officials say they are hoping two matches in Sapporo this weekend, including England v Tonga, generate 4.7bn yen ( £35m) in revenue, as 80,000 of an expected total of more than 400,000 overseas fans descend on the tournament’s northernmost venue.

Rugby jerseys for sale in Kobe.

Rugby jerseys for sale in Kobe. Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

The World Rugby chairman, Bill Beaumont, believes a “flame has been lit” with the arrival of the World Cup in Japan. “Interest is phenomenal and more young people in Japan are getting into rugby than ever before,” he said on the eve of the tournament.

Bu the groundswell of grassroots support for rugby – Japan’s third sport behind professional baseball and football – could easily give way to apathy if the host side’s performances fall short of rising public expectations.

Few believe that Jamie Joseph’s men – Japanese sport’s latest challenge to the notion of a racially homogenous society – can do anything other than put Russia, currently ranked 20th in the world, to the sword at Tokyo Stadium on Friday.

But if their tournament evaporates as quickly as beer fumes on a balmy autumn evening against Pool A opponents Ireland, Scotland and Samoa, the resulting drop-off in local interest will frustrate the vision of World Rugby officials – to spread the rugby gospel across Asia and tap into a potentially huge financial dividends.

According to the Nikkei Asian Review, World Rugby’s wish list for the 2019 legacy includes creating 40 million new rugby fans, adding 2 million new players across the region by the end of next year and seeing another Asian team qualify for the 2023 World Cup.

Twenty-four hours before the opening match, supporters, organisers and, very possibly, a large number of neutrals, are clinging onto the hope that Japan will avoid becoming victims of their success in England and defy the predictions from uncooperative cephalopods.

Recalling Japan’s exploits against South Africa, their popular captain, Michael Leitch, neatly summed up just how precarious rugby’s place in the Japanese sporting firmament has been.

“When we left for England there were roughly 25 people waving us off at the airport,” Leitch said this week, according to Kyodo news agency. “When we came back there were 6,000.”

There will be no need for a homecoming this time around, but a place in the quarterfinals – a feat that will require a big win over Russia and leaves little room for blunders against Ireland, Samoa or Scotland – should go some way towards realising Leitch’s vision for the sport in the country he has called home since the age of 15.

Reflecting on his side’s 2015 post-Springboks loss to Scotland, Leitch added: “Although we lost, we inspired Japan and this time round, at a home World Cup, we have the opportunity to inspire Japan again.”

We will soon know if the Brave Blossoms have it in them to seize their moment.


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