Rugby | ADDING THE EXTRAS

New No. 1 ranking for Wales means little before RWC

by Rich Freeman

The rugby number crunchers have been out in full force in the past week both in terms of what goes on off the field and on it.

On the paddock, Wales’ win over England last Saturday saw Warren Gatland’s men take over the No. 1 spot in the world rankings, a feat that will no doubt please the people of Kitakyushu who will host the team ahead of the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off in less than four weeks.

The Welsh ascendency ended New Zealand’s reign after nearly 10 years at the top, despite the All Blacks’ 36-0 win over Australia last weekend.

However, such is the mysterious way that the rankings work that Wales’ hold on the top spot could be short-lived if Ireland beats England this weekend.

If the Irish, who face Japan on Sept. 28 in Pool A, do win they would be just the fifth side to top the rankings after England, New Zealand (for 88.29 percent of the time), South Africa and Wales.

Japan is ranked ninth, following its three wins in the Pacific Nations Cup, equaling its previous best position that was last held in February 2016.

With the final RWC warm-up games set for Sept. 7, it is anyone’s bet who will be at the top once the tournament kicks off, but as most coaches point out, the only real ranking that counts is who is No. 1 on the evening of Nov. 2, following the final at Yokohama International Stadium, more commonly known as Nissan Stadium.

“It’s nice for a day, but we won’t be shouting from the rooftops about it. We’ve got to keep things in perspective,” Gatland said of the No. 1 ranking.

When asked if it now meant Wales had a target on its back, Gatland, who is a New Zealander, said: “I don’t know. There will be lots of journalists saying it’s a joke, probably Kiwi journalists. It’s just a number, that’s all it is at the moment. We won’t be making a big fuss about it.”

Bookies in the United Kingdom certainly do not seem to have been moved by the change in rankings with New Zealand the 23-20 favorite to win the World Cup, followed by South Africa 9-2, England 5-1 and Ireland 7-1.

Wales is 17-2 with Australia 12-1, France 33-1, Scotland and Argentina both 40-1, while Japan is 150-1 to come away with the trophy.

Off the field, too, the upcoming event is set to have quite a few No. 1s of its own.

Asia’s first Rugby World Cup is set to reach the broadest rugby audience in history with the action set to be broadcast to more than 800 million households in 217 territories (once all deals are announced), surpassing the 683 million homes record in 2015.

And in a move directed at Asia, a streaming service will also be provided for markets where broadcasting deals are not operational.

In Japan, the opening game between the Brave Blossoms and Russia on Sept. 20 together with the opening ceremony that will precede the game at Tokyo Stadium (Ajinomoto Stadium) is anticipated to attract a record domestic rugby audience of 40 million, easily surpassing the 25 million that watched Japan beat Samoa four years ago in England.

“Our mission is to grow the global rugby family and our Rugby World Cup 2019 broadcast plans reflect that mission, providing more content to more people with more innovation than ever before,” said World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont.

This week, World Rugby produced more stats inspired by the tournament.

With tickets selling better than any previous tournament — 5.5 million tickets have been applied for — organizers are hoping for a near sell-out of the total 1.8 million tickets on sale.

This has led World Rugby to declare there are 14 million rugby fans in Japan though that figure will be taken with a pinch of salt by regular followers of the game. And the game’s governing body will no doubt be reminded of it if there is not a considerable increase in crowds when the Top League starts in January.

According to the released figures, more than 90 million people in Japan are aware of the World Cup equating to 77.4 percent of the population and the Japanese economy is set to benefit to the tune of ¥216.6 billion, with much of that coming from the close on 500,000 international visitors who have bought tickets.

Across Asia, the figures are just as impressive.

There are 112 million rugby fans in Asia, and the Impact Beyond Asia 1 million project has seen, to date, 1.16 million participants play or experience rugby, according to World Rugby.

In addition, 25,000 disadvantaged children in Asia have benefited from the ChildFund Pass It Back program with ¥194.2 million pledged to the charity by fans and commercial partners.

Of course the proof will be in the pudding, in terms of long-term legacies both in Japan and Asia, but there can be no denying a good base has been laid for rugby to expand across the continent.

Whether that will transpose to an Asian team being ranked No. 1 in the world or having its name engraved on the Webb Ellis Cup in the years to come, however, is another matter.

Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News and can be heard talking about it during Sunwolves’ home games.

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