George Gregan has experienced the full gamut of Rugby World Cup emotions, but the Australian legend knows what he is looking forward to most when Japan hosts the tournament later this year.
“Just being in Japan,” the 45-year-old, who was part of the Australia teams that lifted the World Cup in 1999 and then lost the final to England four years later, told The Japan Times this week in Tokyo.
“When you get on the ground and you experience it, everyone is here from all around the world and there’s a real energy and expectation.”
If anyone knows what to expect from a Rugby World Cup, it is Gregan. The former scrum half played at four editions of the tournament from 1995-2007, during a glittering career that saw him become the Wallabies’ most-capped player with 139 test appearances.
Gregan is also familiar with Japan, having spent the final three seasons of his career in the Top League with Suntory Sungoliath before retiring in 2011. He returned for a visit to Sapporo and Tokyo this week in his role as an ambassador for Rugby World Cup sponsor Land Rover, and the trip has whetted his appetite for the Sept. 20-Nov. 2 World Cup.
“I think the Japanese people will be surprised by how many people are coming from all around the world just to watch this game called rugby,” said Gregan, who will be in Japan during the tournament to work as a TV analyst.
“It might attract some of them to get on board and not only watch their national team, but watch some of these international games that are being played in their city or prefecture. They’re great hosts. I think they will be really warm and welcoming.”
Gregan tasted World Cup glory when Australia beat France 35-12 in Cardiff in 1999 to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time, but he experienced the flip side of the coin when the Wallabies fell 20-17 to England in the final on home soil in 2003, losing to a last-minute Johnny Wilkinson drop goal.
The team that triumphs in this year’s final in Yokohama will have to come through seven games, including three knockout matches, and Gregan believes careful planning will separate the winner from the losers.
“The simplicity and the consistency of your messaging is really important,” he said. “It’s all about your preparation. You look at all good teams and it’s always in their preparation.
“It’s a long tournament, but once you get to the quarterfinals it’s a bit of a sprint. It’s really a different competition. You’ve got three knockout games and there’s a real finality with sudden death. It’s a different mindset, and that goes into your preparation.”
Host nation Japan has never reached the knockout stage despite appearing in all eight editions of the World Cup so far, but it came mighty close four years ago in England. The Brave Blossoms became the first team ever to win three pool-stage matches and still fail to advance, after beating South Africa, Samoa and the United States, and Gregan believes they are capable of making the breakthrough this time.
“They’re at a stage now where they know that if they play to their level, they can beat a lot of teams in the world,” he said. “And that’s a confidence which you only get from having three pool-game victories in 2015. The players took that back to their clubs, and that creates a really nice positive energy which is inspiring for players coming into that set-up.”
Japan begins its campaign against Russia in the tournament’s opening game in Tokyo on Sept. 20, before facing Ireland in Shizuoka on Sept. 28, Samoa in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, on Oct. 5, and Scotland in Yokohama on Oct. 13.
The host nation will have a tough task to edge out either world No. 3 Ireland or No. 7 Scotland for a place in the quarterfinals, but Gregan insists it is not unrealistic.
“It depends what your attitude is like,” he said. “The scheduling is definitely going to help, because it’s tough in a World Cup. I think they’ve got the ability to beat Scotland. If I was Scotland, I’d be thinking that’s a banana-skin game.”
But while Japan would be content with a place in the quarterfinals, the heavyweights of world rugby will be satisfied with nothing less than the trophy itself. Gregan is hopeful that things can come together for his native Australia after a rough few years, and he is keen for his countrymen to experience the emotions he felt as the clock ticked closer to fulltime in Cardiff 20 years ago.
“It was a sense of relief,” he said. “We were at the stage where we had it in the bag. It’s not often in games, let alone the biggest game of your life, that you’ve got breathing space going down the stretch. It was just a sense of ‘well, we’ve done it.’
“Obviously, there’s elation when the final whistle goes, but prior to that it was like, ‘we’ve done it.’ It was a bit surreal. There was a big outpouring of emotion after that.”