Rugby

Johnny Wilkinson, Bryan Habana show kids how it is done

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The 2019 Rugby World Cup has been electrified by inspirational performances of the Japan national team, which made the knockout stage for the first time at the quadrennial tournament.

And the sport’s global and domestic governing bodies hope that it will help encourage more children to hit the field and start playing the game in Japan and Asia.

On Monday, World Rugby and Japan Rugby Football Union hosted a kickoff event for the “Rugby Introduction Days” program in Tokyo with some of the game’s past greats such as Jonny Wilkinson and Bryan Habana as ambassadors. The organizers will continue to hold these events across the country in November and December with the purpose of increasing the number of future rugby players while introducing the appeal and spirit of the game.

It is the second series in the program. The JRFU has worked with domestic rugby clubs to raise the number of participants in the sport since 2018. In April and May of this year, the first series of the Rugby Introduction Days were held with Brave Blossoms stars like Michael Leitch and Yu Tamura as ambassadors.

A total of about 120 elementary students, most of whom had never played rugby before, assembled at Kami-igusa Ground of Waseda University in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, and experienced the taste of the game. The program focuses on letting the children have fun with the sport.

So in Monday’s event, for instance, Wilkinson, a former England flyhalf who is famously known for slotting a game-winning drop goal in the last minute of extra time in the 2003 World Cup final, kindly instructed the participating kids to kick above the bar that was set low and was held by adults. And whether the boys and girls made plays or not, the former star players kept encouraging the newcomers.

“Creating a long-term legacy for the acceleration of rugby’s development in Japan was a key driver in World Rugby’s decision to bring the Rugby World Cup to the world’s most youthful and populous continent (of Asia),” World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont said in a statement. “And initiatives such as the Rugby Introduction Days being hosted by the Japan Rugby Football Union in November and December will provide important opportunities to capture the enthusiasm and introduce new girls and boys, women and men to the joy of rugby and the unique character- building values of our sport.”

The Rugby Introduction Days is a part of the Rugby World Cup 2019 Impact Beyond Legacy program, and according to World Rugby, it has achieved over 1.8 million rugby participants in Asia, including more than 1 million in Japan, since its inception in 2016.

Besides former South African winger Habana and Wilkinson, other former World Cup players like former Ireland center Brian O’Driscoll and ex-England center Will Greenwood enjoyed teaching the basics of rugby to the participants.

Meanwhile, there was a little surprise announcement at the end of Monday’s event as well. Fu Ono, 10, and Eita Amino, 7, were designated as the escort kids for Saturday’s World Cup final between England and South Africa at International Stadium Yokohama.

The two boys, who were among the participants on Monday, would have had the same role for a pool-phase contest between Canada and Namibia in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, on Oct. 13. But the match was canceled due to Typhoon Hagibis.

“I was so sad that the game was canceled,” Ono said. “But now I have been chosen for the final and am extremely excited. I’ve tried to put my head up, so I feel like it’s paid off.”

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