The Wales national rugby team wants to “do more than just turn up, have a great time and then disappear” during the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, and plans to forge a lasting relationship with the city of Kitakyushu.
“We want to come and be part of the community,” former Wales captain Ryan Jones, now head of rugby participation with the Welsh Rugby Union, told The Japan Times in Tokyo this week.
“That’s what rugby is. That’s what is different about our game. We want to make sure that people who have never experienced it get an authentic rugby experience.”
The WRU has signed an agreement with Kitakyushu to make three visits to the city ahead of the Sept. 20-Nov. 2, 2019, World Cup. The first will take place in September this year, the second next March and the third in the month leading up to the tournament itself.
The Welsh governing body plans to coach 750 children, 200 coaches and 150 referees in the city, and is also looking at other ways to interact with the local community. Kitakyushu will host no games at the tournament but nearby Fukuoka, Oita and Kumamoto all will.
The WRU is hoping to maximize business opportunities with Japanese companies ahead of the tournament, but its main concern is spreading the gospel of Welsh rugby.
“Rugby is arguably our biggest export,” said Jones, who won 75 caps for his country, played on three Grand Slam-winning teams and also represented the British and Irish Lions before retiring in 2015.
“We are synonymous with it, and that’s because of the values of rugby. That’s what we want to bring to Japan. We are a nation that’s littered with song, we are a nation that travels well and we will travel en masse to Japan for Rugby World Cup. We want to bring Wales to Japan.
“We’re trying to strengthen our links through the medium of rugby,” he continued. “We joke about it that Japan is red and white and we want the red bit to be Wales. We want to be the Japanese people’s second team.”
Wales, which has never won the World Cup but has appeared at every edition of the tournament and reached the semifinals twice, has been drawn in Pool D along with Australia, Georgia, Fiji and a qualifier from the Americas region yet to be determined.
The tournament will mark the end of head coach Warren Gatland’s time in charge following a hugely successful period since taking the job in 2007, and Jones is hoping the players can send him out with a bang.
“I expect us to get out of the group stage,” said Jones, who missed the 2007 World Cup through injury but was part of Wales’ run to the semifinals four years later in New Zealand. “It’s the biggest cliche in the world, but once you get into the knockout stage anything can happen. We’ve been there and lost in a World Cup semifinal to a red card and everyone is heartbroken. You’re one decision away from getting to a World Cup final.
“I think we’ll be prepared. We’ve got a national coach who knows how to get the most out of a team on the big occasion. It’s going to be his swan song as well, that’s the other magic ingredient.”
The Welsh team will not play any test matches in Japan before the tournament begins but Jones insists that nothing will be left to chance.
“I think the nature of elite sport now is that all the preparation is done,” he said. “Whether that’s the national squad coming out here looking at everything from facilities through to hotels, meeting rooms, menus of hotel restaurants, right through to where the luggage is, where the kit is, how long it takes to get to training and matches. No stone is left unturned.
“What is really important for us as a team is that we understand the environment that we’re going into, so we are respectful and we understand any cultural differences. Because the team wants to embrace it. It’s the one time that you get to represent your country on a truly global stage, and you want to make sure you embrace everything that encompasses. Everything from the social side of it to the playing side and everything in between.”
Jones is confident that many Welsh fans will travel to Japan to follow their team, and he believes that the Japanese public is in for a big surprise when the tournament kicks off at Tokyo Stadium (Ajinomoto Stadium).
“I don’t think Japanese people appreciate what’s going to happen when Rugby World Cup lands,” he said. “It’s not perceived as being as big as the football World Cup, but rugby is different. It’s celebrated in a different way and played in a different way and the fans approach it in a different way.
“I think there’s a magic and mystique to that, and only once you’ve touched and felt it do you really understand it. It will leave a lasting impression on you and that’s what I think it will do in two years’ time.”
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