YOKOHAMA – Former Wallabies captain Stirling Mortlock said in 2007, “The Rugby World Cup isn’t just a celebration of rugby, it’s a celebration of the host nation.”
RWC 2019 proved to be just that, with South Africa a worthy winner on the field, Japan celebrating the performance of its local heroes the Brave Blossoms and foreign fans praising the hosts.
In wrapping up the tournament, World Rugby Chief Executive Brett Gosper said, “Is this the greatest Rugby World Cup ever?”
“Certainly, the statistics would say that it is, and I think when you mix those statistics with the emotion and personality of this tournament, it would be hard to argue against the fact this is the greatest World Cup we’ve had.”
Of course, organizers are wont to say that after every tournament, and World Rugby, whose staff now head home before setting up in France, will no doubt be using similar adjectives in 2023.
What made this World Cup special, however, was Japan and its people, many of whom now call themselves rugby fans because of the tournament.
It is probably a step too far to say “familiarity breeds contempt,” but for many overseas fans — and well over 400,000 attended the tournament — big-time rugby is generally played in the same old venues.
One of the reasons for bringing the tournament to Japan was to showcase the game to Asia. It was also a chance to showcase Japan as a rugby destination.
When Japan was first awarded the tournament in 2009, there were fears that games would be played in front of empty stadiums, based on the declining numbers at Top League games and the less-than-stellar crowds the Brave Blossoms drew.
The wins over South Africa, Samoa and the United States in 2015, together with the introduction of the Sunwolves, changed things big time.
The Sunwolves, in particular, played a huge role, giving Japanese rugby fans a team they finally felt was theirs, free from the shackles of corporate rugby. Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground became known the world over as the home of the Wolf Pack, as howling fans cheered their team on.
The World Cup has taken that and significantly expanded on it, best exemplified by the 15,000 who turned up in Kitakyushu to watch Wales train and the noise that greeted the Brave Blossoms’ wins over Ireland and Scotland.
One of the greatest joys of this World Cup was standing outside a stadium watching Japanese fans turn up, often with beer in hand, mixing with the foreign supporters.
Not everyone understood each other, but the exchanges were appreciated by both sides, with the beer probably helping.
For the locals, it was a chance to share their culture and learn a little about the 19 other teams taking part, while the visiting fans embraced everything Japan had to offer.
“It was remarkable to see excited fans at fan zones throughout Japan. The sight of fans with beer mugs watching rugby together indicated the blossoming of a new sports culture in Japan — a legacy to be inherited by fans of the Olympics and Paralympics,” said Akira Shimazu, the CEO of the local organizing committee.
A total of 1.84 million tickets were sold, meaning the stadiums were 99.3 percent full.
The tournament broke records in attendance, broadcasting and revenue. The 1.13 million people in fan zones, 70,103 spectators at International Stadium Yokohama for the final, and 54.8 million TV viewers for the Japan vs. Scotland pool stage climax were unprecedented, while the ¥437 billion ($4 billion) economic impact was also a record.
Not everything was smooth sailing, however.
Typhoon Hagibis caused the cancellation of three games. Huge lines for food early in the tournament forced the organizing committee to change its policy.
While the beer did not run out, organizers had not thought through the consequences of having so many big drinkers in one place and the lines for the toilets were a constant source of anger.
There were also issues with accommodation and transportation in Oita and some worrying times for fans as they were caught in a crush trying to leave Sapporo Dome.
But through it all, the volunteers at the match venues and Japanese people around the country ensured the problems were soon forgotten, even during times of hardship following the typhoon that caused so much death and destruction.
“We want to thank all the Japanese people for making this one of the best experiences of our lives,” said South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus, whose side were deserved winners of the Webb Ellis Cup.
“This country should be proud of its facilities and the way it has hosted this World Cup. From the Boks, we just want to thank the people for going out of their way on a daily basis. The support we’ve enjoyed at training sessions and on match days has been terrific and has made our stay in Japan truly special.”
Those words came from Erasmus early on in the tournament and were repeated constantly by other coaches, players and fans, including the man who helped start the rugby boom in Japan.
“It’s been a tremendous tournament, and Japan should be so proud of what they’ve done for rugby and for the country,” said England coach Eddie Jones, whose side went down 32-12 against the Springboks in the final.
The big question is what happens next.
“This marks a new start for the Japanese rugby community, and the path is not easy,” said President of Japan Rugby Football Union Shigetaka Mori.
“How do we make sure the energy in the past months translates into the growth of our rugby community? This is the question the Japan Rugby Football Union must address going forward.”
There will be thousands of fans around the world and in Japan hoping this was not a “Once in a Lifetime” event, but the start of something even bigger and better.
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