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Greater vision necessary for RWC and Japanese rugby to succeed

by Rich Freeman

Back in 2005 two flyhalf/centers of contrasting ability talked about why they hoped Japan would win the right to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

“By hosting the World Cup, we will raise the level of the national team and raise the popularity of the game,” said Seiji Hirao, one of the greatest players Japan has ever produced. “We need the Rugby World Cup to make this happen.”

Meanwhile, a rugby writer (far younger and more naive than now) tried to use Japanese history as a way of explaining why he hoped the tournament would come to the Land of the Rising Sun:

“Just as the visit of the Black ships in 1853 led to Japan opening its doors to the West and the introduction of western ideas and subsequent changes to Japanese society and industry, so the World Cup will act as a catalyst to cause change in the structure of rugby in Japan.”

As it turned out, Japan lost the right to host the 2011 tournament to New Zealand — though with hindsight that was no bad thing. Japan was clearly not ready (both on and off the field) and the Kiwis put on a superb event.

In 2009, however, Japan was successful in winning the right to host the 2019 edition, and while some of the changes hoped for by Hirao-san and the former Yokohama Country and Athletic playmaker have taken place, they have not been across the board.

The good news is rugby’s popularity— in terms of crowd numbers and TV airtime — is starting to head back to the levels of the 1970s and ’80s when the sport was in its heyday.

The level of the national team has also improved, thanks to the increased competitiveness of the Top League and the introduction of the Sunwolves, whose very creation was with RWC 2019 in mind.

The crowds for test matches and the atmosphere at the grounds have also improved as seen recently in Oita and Kobe, for which the local cities and the Japan Rugby Football Union should be congratulated.

The problem though is what happens come Nov. 3 2019, when all the various logistical experts brought in from overseas by World Rugby leave Japan to start work on France 2023.

The various factions within the JRFU continue to do things their way — despite their “All for one, one for all” motto — and the joy of seeing Japan upset Tier One nations is offset by the worry about what will happen to the sport post 2019 particularly in terms of trying to develop the sport and increase playing numbers.

Hosting a World Cup should be more about instigating change than rewarding the past, but changing the way the game is run and played is not something the JRFU is keen on.

One of the most important aspects of any Rugby World Cup is its legacy program, which in 2019’s case is about increasing the number of “active participants at all levels in Japan” to 200,000 and having two million people across Asia playing the sport by 2020.

While some parts of Asia have a blank page to work with and can pretty well start from scratch, Japan’s existing structure in terms of youth rugby makes their target nigh on impossible.

Introducing tag rugby to children at elementary school — the plan that is constantly put forward by the JRFU — and having children interact with professionals before test matches is all well and good. But it is like giving a child a candy and then taking the bag away.

Aside from the fact children in Japan basically do just one sport year-round, the huge decline in academic institutions with rugby teams and the complete lack of age-grade clubs (aside from community-based “rugby schools” that only take children up to 12 or 15 years old) means the majority of kids have no chance of graduating to real rugby once they leave elementary school.

And even those that do often struggle to play once they have left university or high school.

“Using unprecedented opportunity and resources (via the World Cup) to introduce more kids to a system that is flawed,” was how one coach described the JRFU’s approach.

Hirao — who died in October 2016 at age 53 and who was honored with a memorial game at the recent first test with Italy — knew only too well the positive effects real change can have, and he constantly talked about how Japanese rugby needed to change.

While at Fushimi Technical High School in Kyoto, he was one of the students whose rugby career and life was nurtured by Yoshiharu Yamaguchi.

A standout student himself, many of Hirao’s teammates were best described as “disruptive adolescents” who were turned into national champions by Yamaguchi, the role model for the teacher Kenji Takizawa in the TV series “School Wars.”

“The old philosophy in Japanese rugby was laid out by a former coach who said to his players that they were going to die and that he would pick up their bones,” Hirao told me back in 2005.

“It was a concept that worked well with the Japanese national character at the time. Now that has changed and we need to find a concept that works well in the modern era and allows players to enjoy the game. We need to work out how to present that concept to the new players.

“We have had the present structure for too many years and the corporations and universities do not want to change. Tradition is the problem.”