The tournament director of the 2019 Rugby World Cup admitted Thursday that Japan’s 12 host cities have yet to fully grasp the scale of the event but expressed confidence that they will be able to cope when an estimated 400,000 overseas fans arrive in 15 months’ time.

“I think, in the nicest possible sense, they probably don’t know what’s coming,” Alan Gilpin told reporters in Tokyo after concluding a weeklong visit to assess preparations for the tournament. “And that’s great, because they don’t even yet see the size of the opportunity they have to really showcase the stadiums and their cities and their communities to an international audience.

“I think what we can say is that we’re confident that over the next 15 months we’ll get them there. The host cities are working very closely with the organizing committee across a whole range of areas. We’re certainly confident. We’ve got the time, the opportunity and the right program in place to get there.”

World Cup organizers estimate that 400,000 overseas fans will arrive in Japan for the Sept. 20-Nov. 2, 2019, competition, with the overall impact on the economy projected at ¥437.2 billion.

Organizers have already received 2 million ticket applications since the process began in January — more than the 1.8 million tickets that will available for sale.

The latest application category, available to rugby supporters’ club members from May 19-June 26, has brought in 400,000 applications from 107 different countries, with 30 percent of those coming from outside Japan. The top five regions excluding Japan were Britain, Australia, Ireland, the United States and Hong Kong.

“I think it’s going to be interesting to see how that mix of international and domestic fans plays out match by match,” said Gilpin. “Obviously it’s going to be different for different games. There’s no doubt that we’re going to see fantastic international crowds in Japan. There is huge appetite for this tournament overseas, with the official travel program seeing record levels of interest at this stage, which is wonderful.”

Organizers admitted that “while there is strong demand across all 48 fixtures, there is exceptional demand for certain matches,” particularly those involving Japan and elite teams such as New Zealand.

Japan’s match against Italy last Saturday at the 40,000-capacity Oita Bank Dome in Oita — the venue for two World Cup quarterfinals — was watched by a crowd of only 25,824, but Gilpin is not worried about empty seats at next year’s tournament.

“We thought the crowd was great,” he said. “Certainly both in terms of a good-size crowd in that stadium, and they were a great crowd, very entertained. The Rugby World Cup is different to international rugby played year on year. There’s a significant marketing and communication campaign around Rugby World Cup, so while Japan aren’t always playing in front of full stadiums, we’re very confident that with the level of demand that exists we will be seeing full stadiums for Rugby World Cup.”

Gilpin declared himself “very encouraged” by preparations for the tournament, which he described as “operationally very much on track.”

“These meetings are an important step as we prepare to host the world’s best rugby teams and fans from all over the world,” said Japan Rugby 2019 CEO Akira Shimazu. “We enjoy excellent collaboration with Mr. Gilpin and the World Rugby team and we are fully committed to the success of this world-class event by implementing a thorough readiness program.”

Japan will face Russia in the World Cup’s opening match at Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium after the Russians were brought in to replace original European qualifier Romania last month. Romania was retrospectively deducted points for fielding ineligible players in the qualifying tournament and subsequently lost its place at the World Cup.

“It’s certainly not something we would have wished for,” Gilpin said. “We don’t think it has damaged the image of the tournament. I think if anything it reinforces rugby’s values, and certainly from a Rugby World Cup perspective, the importance of those values.”

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