It’s been a year since Japan shocked the world with its stunning victory over South Africa at the Rugby World Cup in England. And ever since the Brave Blossoms’ breakthrough performance, rugby has been in a far brighter spotlight.
As the host nation for the 2019 World Cup, that is certainly a plus. Organizing committee CEO Akira Shimazu said at a countdown fan event in Tokyo on Tuesday — which marked exactly three years until the World Cup’s opening match — that preparations for rugby’s showpiece tournament have gotten smoother over the past year since Japan’s World Cup success.
“Hopefully, we’ll be in a favorable pool and get through the group stage, advancing to the knockout stage,” he said.
But the team’s achievements in Britain last year don’t guarantee anything for the Japan national team and the organizers of the 2019 tourney, which will be the first World Cup to be held in Asia and played in a country where rugby is not a major sport.
Hosting the World Cup is a golden opportunity for the game in Japan. And the organizers and players feel that they need to capitalize and step up preparations and promotions for the event right away.
“We only have three years,” said national team player and two-time Top League MVP Shota Horie. “While we’ve got to improve every single day as players, we’ve also got to spread the game across the nation. In order to do that, we need support from the fans and the association (Japan Rugby Football Union).”
Said top player Kensuke Hatakeyama: “As a player, I’ve got to play at a level where I deserve to be chosen (for the national team). And off the field, I want to raise the values of the sport.”
Fumiaki Tanaka, a diminutive scrum-half and vocal leader on the national team, has urged the association and organizers to put more effort into promoting the game and take advantage of the recent rugby boom.
The 31-year-old insisted that Japan should put the South Africa victory behind it and begin moving forward (the players and invited fans watched highlights of the Japan-South Africa game during the event).
Tanaka said that the players have set the bar high since ex-Japan coach Eddie Jones was at the helm, so he is not too worried about their performance and mindset.
But he doesn’t feel that the association and administrators have done enough to promote the game, citing the case of last season’s Top League opener between his Panasonic Wild Knights and Suntory Sungoliath at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground last November. The game took place immediately after the World Cup, but the stadium was almost half empty due to the league’s poor ticket sales strategy.
“It’s now or never,” Tanaka said of the sport’s current popularity in Japan. “Both the players and association have got to do their jobs. If we fall into darkness, how are we going to promote the game from there? If we work together more, I believe that the 2019 World Cup will be a tournament that everybody will fully enjoy.”