Rugby fans in Kobe believe excitement is growing ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup, with the national team’s first-ever test match in the city on Saturday helping to turn up the volume.

“I think little by little the atmosphere is building,” 54-year-old Japan fan and Saitama resident Yoshiharu Okuyama, wearing a full rugby kit, red wig and large Brave Blossoms hat, told The Japan Times outside Noevir Stadium ahead of Japan’s game against Italy.

“There are a lot of people here at today’s game in Kobe. Last week in Oita there was a crowd of 25,000, and that’s something we haven’t seen before.”

A crowd of 20,276 watched Japan lose 25-22 to Italy in its first-ever test match in Kobe at the 30,132-capacity Noevir Stadium. Japan beat the Italians 34-17 the previous weekend at Oita Bank Dome, which will host two quarterfinals at the World Cup.

Kobe will stage four first-round games during the Sept. 20-Nov. 2, 2019, World Cup, and local fans are already looking forward to the action.

“We’ve got tickets for the World Cup, the Kobe pack for all four games,” said Kobe resident Kaide Urawa, who attended the game with her friends Satomi Takekawa and Sanae Nishiumi.

“We’re members of the Kobe Steelers fan club so we know all about the World Cup, but I’m not sure how much most people in Kobe know about it. But we’re very happy that this game is being held here. The national team usually plays in Tokyo.”

Fans relaxing outside the stadium before the game had traveled far and wide to get to Kobe, including mother and daughter Hiroe Hirano and Kaho Hirano, from Kanagawa Prefecture.

“We came here by car,” said 41-year-old Hiroe. “We live in Kanto, so if there is a game in Yokohama or in Tokyo, we try to go. We also watch games on TV. This is the furthest we’ve ever been to watch a game. The last game was in Kyushu and that was a little too far for us but we made the effort to get to Kobe.

“I hope everyone gets excited during the World Cup but a lot of people in my neighborhood don’t know much about it,” she continued. “If Japan wins, then I think people will become interested. We’re rugby fans so we’ll support the players even if they lose. But I hope they win for the sake of the atmosphere of the World Cup.”

Not everyone outside the stadium was satisfied with Kobe’s new test-match venue status, however. Noevir Stadium and Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Osaka Prefecture are the only venues in the Kansai Region that will host World Cup matches, and Nara resident Dean Gutberlet believes the area has been hard done by.

“I’m angry that Kansai got left out of the draw, basically,” said New Zealander Guthberlet, a teacher and freelance writer who has lived in Japan for 18 years. “Kansai has a population of 36 million and it’s the home of Japanese rugby. They have no quarterfinals, no Australia, no New Zealand games.

“Oita has a population of 600,000 and they get an Australian pool game, an All Blacks pool game and two quarterfinals. As a resident of Kansai, I’m upset that I have to travel far to see some good games. I think there are some politics going on that we don’t know about.”

Japan superfan Okuyama, on the other hand, does not seem to care how far he has to travel to watch the Brave Blossoms play.

“I go to every national game,” he said. “I was in Oita for last week’s game. I’ve been going to games for more than 20 years dressed like this.

“I think the atmosphere will be great when the World Cup starts. There will be a lot of fans coming from overseas and the Japanese people will show them hospitality. The results of the Japan team will have a slight effect on the atmosphere. If they get through to the knockout round, then the mood will be great. If not, then the knockout round might feel a little more flat. The media plays a part.

“Of course I believe they can get to the knockout round. I’m aiming for them to win it. I’m supporting them with the view to them winning every game. Losing doesn’t even enter my mind.”

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