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Japan marks two years to go until 2019 Rugby World Cup

by Rich Freeman

Kyodo

Japan celebrated two years to the start of the 2019 Rugby World Cup on Wednesday with the Webb Ellis Cup on display in Tokyo’s Shibuya district ahead of a 46-day tour that will see it visit all 12 host cities from Sapporo in the north to Kumamoto in the south.

“Two years to go is an exciting milestone for people in the host nation and fans around the world and I am delighted that Japan is marking it with a special nationwide festival that will engage and inspire people the length and breadth of the host nation,” World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said in a press release.

“It also represents an important time in preparing for what is one of the world’s biggest and best-loved major sports events. Later this year, we will announce the match schedule and launch details of the ticketing program, events that will enable teams and fans to truly start to plan their Rugby World Cup 2019 experience.”

Rugby World Cup Tournament Director Alan Gilpin, CEO of the local organizing committee Akira Shimazu and Japan national team members Kenki Fukuoka and Shota Horie were among those present at the ceremonial event as the countdown began to Sept. 20, 2019, when the 48-match tournament kicks off at Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium.

“In exactly two years from today, the eyes of the world will be on Japan,” said Gilpin. “This vibrant and special nation will be the center of the sporting universe for six amazing weeks as the world’s top players compete for the ultimate prize — the Webb Ellis Cup — and the right to be crowned world champions.”

However, the countdown was overshadowed by a warning at the weekend that preparations were not going according to plan.

Accommodation at the training grounds is of particular concern to Gilpin and his colleagues, with the Englishman saying, “These venues must be of a world-class standard that provide the platform for the players to perform at their best.”

The three test matches in June in Kumamoto, Shizuoka and Tokyo also highlighted a number of other issues.

Many of the grounds lack the infrastructure required of a major sporting event — particularly one for which sponsorship and corporate entertainment plays such a major role.

Access to certain grounds is also of major concern, the journey from downtown Kumamoto to the Egao Kenko Stadium, for example, taking more than an hour by a two-car single-track train and shuttle bus.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said he was unhappy with the length of time his side had to spend on a bus between its hotel and training ground during its stay in June, and Kyodo News understands the Wallabies have expressed similar concerns ahead of their test match in Yokohama in November.

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics still dominating the government’s plans, there are worries rugby has been put on the back shelf in terms of its public exposure.

With ticket sales the only way Japan can make any money from the tournament, and World Rugby wanting full stadia to entice more sponsors for future events, there are concerns about how many locals will attend the tournament.

Top League crowds are still very hit and miss with the 27,871 that watched Yamaha Jubilo take on Toyota Verblitz on the opening weekend in Toyota City (which is set to host two of the quarterfinals) offset by the 1,317 that saw NEC Green Rockets take on Toyota Industries Shuttles in Sapporo in Round 3.

There are also questions as to what legacy the tournament will have in terms of developing the game and increasing playing numbers both in Japan and across Asia.

“You — the people, organizers and leaders of Japan — will ultimately determine the legacy that you want Rugby World Cup to leave,” said Gilpin.

“To those involved in the organization of this special event, including the government, we say, embrace and maximize the opportunity that you have been given. Ignite a passion. Make good your legacy and above all, ensure that players and fans are at the heart of all your decisions.”

Wednesday’s milestone came two years and one day after Japan shocked the world by beating South Africa at the 2015 World Cup in England.

That upset not only set the tournament alight but it also saved Japan’s right to host the 2019 event.

World Rugby had been angered by the sudden withdrawal of the new National Stadium as the showpiece arena for the tournament and it is understood alternative plans were being made to move the tournament from Asia.

Japan’s win over the Springboks and the resulting feel-good factor, however, persuaded the sport’s governing body to persevere as rugby looks to enlarge its footprint the world’s largest continent.

“Japan 2019 will be a tournament that has teams and fans at heart,” said Beaumont. “It will be special. It will be ground-breaking and it will be the catalyst for rugby growth across Asia.”

Japan 2019 has plenty to live up to.