/

Celebrities line up to support Japan’s bid to host RWC

by Rich Freeman

The Japan Rugby Football Union rolled out the celebrities on Tuesday in support for its bid to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

News photo WIDTH="200" HEIGHT="137"/>The Japan Rugby Football Union’s bid to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup received the backing of a number of well-known rugby players and supporters on Tuesday. World Cup winners Matt Cockbain (left) and Toutai Kefu (second from left) joined former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and former Japan captain and coach Seiji Hirao (right) at a press conference at the Foreign
Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and former captain and coach of Japan Seiji Hirao were joined by two World Cup-winning Wallabies in Toutai Kefu and Matt Cockbain at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.

And it didn’t stop there with the likes of Wallabies coach Eddie Jones (who had hoped to fly in from Australia for the event), former All Black John Kirwan, England and British and Irish Lions captain Martin Johnson — not to mention Olympic gold medalist Koji Murofushi, yokozuna Asashoryu, Tsunekazu Takeda, president of the Japan Olympic Committee, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — all weighing in with messages of support through a promotional video.

Unfortunately, restrictions imposed by the International Rugby Board, mean that the actual contents of Japan’s bid have to remain under wraps for now, though the JRFU did say that the tournament would be played in June and July and would be run on similar lines to the 2003 and 2007 events — namely 20 teams in four groups of five with the top two teams in each group advancing to the knockout stages.

And the quartet — in their own different ways — impressed on those present that Japan was ready to host the event.

Going up against Japan are New Zealand and South Africa, and while their pedigree as rugby-playing nations cannot be faulted, there are many who think the game — and the IRB — need to look beyond the traditional power bases if the sport is to maximize its potential.

“The future of rugby lies in Asia, both in terms of the number of players but also the number of fans,” said Mori, president of the 2011 Japan Rugby World Cup Bid Committee.

“And that is one reason why Japan has decided to put in a bid,” he added.

Jones, who was prevented from attending the press conference by a prior engagement in Australia, said that countries such as Japan and the United States should have more input in the rugby world, and that hosting the World Cup would help greatly toward this end.

The need to expand the borders of the game and the tremendous infrastructure in place as a result of the 2002 soccer World Cup are just two reasons why Japan is the bookies favorite to win the right to host the third biggest sporting event in the world.

Add in the support of the government — 618 Diet members support the bid, as opposed to the 339 who supported the bid for the soccer World Cup — and a number of very high profile sponsors and it would seem that it is Japan’s bid to lose.

Unfortunately things are not quite as simple as that.

One cause for concern among rugby fans around the world is that support for the tournament will fall off once the Brave Blossoms are knocked out.

And it is a point not lost on Hirao.

“Now we have a long-term goal in hosting the RWC, I hope we will see a big improvement in the level of the national team,” said the former Kobe Steel star, who added that Japan had risen in the IRB rankings to No. 17 following its win over South Korea on Sunday.

“To date the only countries to have hosted the World Cup have been top eight countries, and that ultimately has to our goal.”

Of course, given the results of the team’s disastrous tour of Europe at the end of last year, there could be some who think Hirao is the eternal optimist. But he was backed by two men who know what it takes to win at the highest level.

“Japanese players are good enough to mix it with the best,” said Kefu, who plays for Kubota Spears. “And the players are big enough and strong enough to play international rugby.”

Cockbain — Kefu’s teammate in the 1999 Wallaby side that lifted the Webb Ellis Cup — also played in the 2003 finals in Australia and the World Fighting Bull backrow forward believes the Japanese players will be motivated by playing in front of their home crowd.

“I am sure that if Japan wins the bid, and I hope they do, that the Japanese players will get a real lift from the fans,” he said.

An IRB inspection team will visit Japan in June, at which stage it is hoped that more details of the bid can be released.

However, Hirao did say that there would be no need for any new stadiums to be built and that Osaka’s Hanazono and Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya — the two traditional homes of rugby in Japan — could be used following renovations.

A final decision as to who will host the 2011 Rugby World Cup will be made on Nov. 18 following an IRB Council meeting.