The 2019 Rugby World Cup has been dubbed by organizers as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event. And for many of the more than 400,000 foreigners expected to travel here, it will be their one and only chance to visit Japan.
Fans who are used to weekend jaunts to Europe to watch the Six Nations or trans-Tasman hops to watch the Bledisloe Cup have jumped at the opportunity to travel to what is regarded as virgin territory when it comes to rugby tours.
And not even a surging yen seems to have put people off, with organizers hopeful the influx of foreigners will ensure all 48 games, from the opening pool game on Sept. 20 to the final on Nov. 2 will be sellouts.
“I will obviously just have to take into consideration that the trip’s going to be a bit more expensive than first planned,” Sydney-based insurance broker John O’Brien was quoted as saying recently by Bloomberg News.
“It’s going to be a little bit more spending money than what was required initially. (But) I am really looking forward to coming. I love the food, and it will be just amazing to see some of the culture and also experience Tokyo.”
Self-confessed Japanophile Peter Gibson, a consultant to Gullivers Sport Travel, the only company in the world that has been an official travel agent for every Rugby World Cup, said this year’s tournament had really caught the Australian public’s attention.
“Of the near 600,000 tickets sold overseas, some 17 percent of those have been snapped up by Aussies,” he told me from Sydney. “This is second only to England and pretty impressive when you consider the rugby population size and the rough road that rugby in Australia finds itself on.
“The demand for Rugby World Cup packages has far exceeded our expectation. I knew Japan would be popular but this is something else. Gullivers had 2,000 people on RWC packages to England in 2015, a record at the time. Already and with two months to go we have 3,500 people booked on Gullivers packages to Japan.”
While the trip to Japan for many of the fans will be something of a magical mystery tour, rugby’s globalization means players and coaches heading to Japan are not quite experiencing a venture into the unknown, as was the case in years gone by.
The advent of the Sunwolves has seen most of the All Blacks and Wallabies and a few of the Springboks play Super Rugby in Tokyo, while Japan’s rise up the world rankings following the 2015 World Cup has seen the number of top-tier teams it has hosted for June and November test matches increase significantly.
Add in the number of coaches who have cut their teeth in the Top League before getting jobs with national teams — not to mention all the trips made by the various national unions to familiarize themselves with grounds, hotels, stadiums, etc. — and it would seem no stone has been left unturned.
But as England coach Eddie Jones knows only too well, there can never be too much preparation when heading overseas with your team.
Back in 2015 as coach of Japan, Jones took his team to England in May for a visit.
Some at the time questioned the cost of flying the entire squad over for just five days, but Jones was adamant the trip would ensure his players (and staff) would be completely at ease when they arrived in England for the tournament.
And so it proved, as the Brave Blossoms went on to stun South Africa in their opener, and finish their stay as the only side in World Cup history to have won three pool games and not make the quarterfinals.
This time around, Jones intends to use his local knowledge of Japan and its culture to ensure the England players have the same sense of familiarity.
As is usual for Jones, he appeared to take a light-hearted approach to the matter, but the meaning is clear for all — get your preparations right and the performance will follow suit.
“We’ll have a couple of lessons about what you should and should not do,” he told the Guardian newspaper.
“Make sure you’ve got socks with no holes — you’ve always got to take off your shoes. Take toilet paper to the train station — all those sort of important things.”
And talking of preparing for the important things, Gibson is hoping the hosts have also done their bit.
“There has been common feedback of ‘I have always wanted to go to Japan and this is my chance,'” he said. “I hope the beer is stocked up.”
Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News and can be heard talking about it during Sunwolves’ home games.