Tuesday in Japan marks one month to go until the country becomes the first Asian nation to host the Rugby World Cup, the sport’s quadrennial showpiece that to date has been dominated by the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses.
Twenty teams will battle it out for the Webb Ellis Cup from Sept. 20-Nov. 2, with Japan — recently crowned Pacific Nations Cup champion-— gunning for the knockout stage for the first time following its historic upset over two-time World Cup winner South Africa at the 2015 tournament in England.
With defending champion New Zealand seeking a third consecutive title, and fourth overall, 20 sides will play 48 matches in 12 venues across the Japanese archipelago, from Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido to Kumamoto on the southwestern island of Kyushu.
Among them, the Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium stands out as the only newly-constructed ground for the tournament, built to showcase the Tohoku region’s recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters.
The opening match of the ninth edition of the tournament will see Japan take on Russia at Tokyo Stadium (Ajinomoto Stadium). The final on Nov. 2 will be staged at International Stadium Yokohama (Nissan Stadium).
The tournament is expected to draw more than 400,000 international visitors, with 85 percent of tickets already sold in the wake of unprecedented demand worldwide. General sales for the remaining tickets started on Aug. 10 and are predicted to sell out.
Japan’s pool games sold out almost immediately after tickets went on sale on a first-come, first-served basis earlier this year. The economic impact of the tournament is estimated to be over ¥430 billion (about $4 billion).
World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said earlier this month that the tournament “will break records and make history on and off the field as Asia’s first Rugby World Cup.”
“Records will be broken during the tournament from fan-zone attendance to broadcast and engagement,” Beaumont said. “Japan 2019 is already proving to be a transformational driver of sporting and social legacy in the host nation and across Asia.”
Beaumont added the tournament will not only be a “ground-breaking occasion for the global rugby family, but also a special moment for our Japanese hosts, who will show the world the best of Japan, its rich culture, famed hospitality and passion for rugby.”
Considered the world’s third-largest sporting event after the Olympics and FIFA World Cup, the Rugby World Cup has been held once every four years since the inaugural 1987 tournament was hosted jointly by New Zealand and Australia.
Japan has participated in every tournament, but the side had only managed to record one win in 24 matches by the time it was knocked out of the 2011 edition in New Zealand.
In 2015, former Wallabies coach and current England boss Eddie Jones led the Brave Blossoms to three wins in the pool stage, including a final-minute 34-32 upset over South Africa that was so memorable it became the subject of a film, called “The Brighton Miracle,” slated for release ahead of this year’s tournament.
Despite the three wins, Japan finished third in its group behind South Africa and Scotland and made an early exit. But the Brave Blossoms’ performance saw the team return home as heroes and sparked a rugby boom across the country.
This year, Japan faces Pool A opponents Ireland, Scotland, Russia and Samoa in its campaign to reach the quarterfinals and beyond.
Helmed by Jamie Joseph and captained by Michael Leitch, Japan appears to be in strong shape following wins over Fiji, Tonga and the United States at the Pacific Nations Cup, jumping two spots in the world rankings to ninth, which matches its highest-ever ranking.
The Brave Blossoms’ recent performance elicited praise from Beaumont.
“As Japan prepares to welcome the world next month, Rugby World Cup fever is well and truly sweeping the nation,” Beaumont said. “The country is gripped with excitement and the Pacific Nations Cup has proved the perfect opener.”
The Brave Blossoms will take on the Springboks on Sept. 6 in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, in their final warmup before the World Cup starts two weeks later.
New Zealand has won three Rugby World Cup title, followed by Australia and South Africa with two each and England with one victory.