The eyes of the world will be on Tokyo on Friday when Japan kicks off the 2019 Rugby World Cup in the opening game against Russia, taking the tournament outside its traditional heartlands for the first time.
Japan saw off rival bids from Italy and South Africa to be named Asia’s first-ever Rugby World Cup host nation in July 2009. Now, more than 10 years later, the waiting is almost over.
Twenty teams will play 48 games at 12 stadiums across Japan over the next six weeks, culminating in the final at International Stadium Yokohama on Nov. 2. Two-time defending champion New Zealand will be trying to make it an unprecedented straight hat trick of victories, but the All Blacks will have no shortage of serious rivals to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
“I think it will be the hardest World Cup we’ve seen,” England head coach Eddie Jones told The Japan Times earlier this year. “While New Zealand are probably the best team, the gap has probably gotten smaller. I think the bounce of the ball, how many of your top players you can keep on the field, is going to be enormously important.”
Ireland goes into the tournament as the world’s top-ranked team, followed by New Zealand, England, South Africa, Wales and Australia, in that order. Received wisdom suggests the winning side is likely to come from that group, but Japan’s famous win over South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England will act as a reminder that anything is possible.
World No. 10 Japan’s main objective this time around will be to go one step further and reach the quarterfinals for the first time, but the Brave Blossoms will have to negotiate a first-round Pool A that also includes Ireland, Scotland, Samoa and Russia.
“Our goal is to make the top eight,” said Japan head coach Jamie Joseph as he named his squad for the tournament late last month. “It’s something that hasn’t been done before. We’re under no illusions how difficult that is, but it should be our goal. I can guarantee that our players are fit and ready to go.”
Pool B sees one of the most mouth-watering clashes of the first round, as New Zealand takes on two-time champion South Africa in Yokohama on the tournament’s opening weekend. Italy, Namibia and Canada will all have a tough task trying to edge out those two teams for a place in the quarterfinals.
Pool C sees old rivals England and France drawn alongside 2015 semifinalist Argentina, the United States and Tonga, while in Pool D, 2015 runner-up Australia will do battle with Wales, Fiji, Georgia and Uruguay.
Only four teams — New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England — have ever lifted the trophy in eight editions since the Rugby World Cup began in 1987. Fans will be eager to see if a new team can add its name to the list of champions, but the success of the tournament will not be judged by what happens on the pitch alone.
Rugby’s governing body, World Rugby, will be hoping its decision to take the event to a new and unfamiliar setting bears fruit, and more than half a million overseas fans are expected to travel to Japan for the tournament.
Almost all the 1.8 million matchday tickets have already been sold, and World Rugby claims that 40 million people in Japan — around a third of the population — are expected to watch the home team’s opening game against Russia on Friday.
A March 2018 study undertaken by accounting firm EY on behalf of World Rugby estimated that the tournament will pump ¥216.6 billion into the Japanese economy, with organizers even vowing to make sure thirsty fans do not run out of beer.
The tournament is also expected to have a sporting as well as an economic legacy. World Rugby sees Asia as fertile breeding ground to expand rugby’s popularity around the world, and the governing body is hoping the tournament can provide the spark to encourage more people to start playing the sport.
Speaking last month to mark the occasion of 50 days before the event began, World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said: “Records will be broken during the tournament, from fan-zone attendance to broadcast and engagement. But significantly, with 50 days to go, we can confidently say that Japan 2019 is already proving to be a transformational driver of sporting and social legacy in the host nation and across Asia.
“The hosting of this tournament has paved the way for 1.16 million people to experience the sport across Asia — 200,000 in Japan alone — through our dedicated Impact Beyond legacy programs in partnership with the Japan Rugby Football Union and Asia Rugby,” he said. “It has provided an important and exciting step-change for rugby in the world’s most populous and youthful region.”
How long the tournament’s legacy lasts, however, remains to be seen. Rugby has a devoted but relatively small following in Japan, and is dwarfed in popularity by baseball and soccer.
Japanese rugby failed to fully capitalize on the national team’s success at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, with the domestic Top League enjoying only a temporary jump in attendances. The fact that the Top League is a corporate, rather than a fully professional, competition also poses a challenge to the sport’s enduring popularity, and the impending demise of Tokyo’s Super Rugby side, the Sunwolves, complicates matters further.
The Rugby World Cup will certainly give Japan’s interest in the sport at least a short-term boost, with the world’s best players all in town and ready to perform on the biggest stage of all.
Can All Blacks captain Kieran Read follow in the footsteps of illustrious predecessor Richie McCaw and lift the Webb Ellis Cup? Will former Japan head coach Jones, now in charge of England, taste success in Yokohama four years after leading the Brave Blossoms to their greatest-ever victory? Or will Ireland, on top of the world rankings and having beaten the All Blacks twice in the past three years, add their name to the trophy having never previously advanced past the quarterfinals?
All will be revealed over the next six weeks.
This special edition on the Rugby World Cup was produced in collaboration with Nikkan Sports, one of Japan’s leading sports publications. The final two pages of this eight-page supplement contain content that has been produced by the Nikkan Sports’ design department exclusively for The Japan Times. Presented in Japanese, these pages include analysis by Keisuke Sawaki, an assistant coach for Eddie Jones’ Japan squad at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England as well as a photo directory of the current national squad. An English version of Sawaki’s analysis can be found on page 2.