I thought the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan was a magnificent tournament. It was extremely well organized, with great participation by the host country. Financially and in terms of participation, it was the most successful World Cup there has been.
Japan was wrapped up in rugby fever. To me, going to the games as a coach, it had much more of a festival atmosphere to it. That probably had something to do with the mix of the crowd. If a big country like England was playing, maybe 40 percent of the crowd was England fans, then there might have been another 20 percent for the opposition and the other 40 percent was Japanese.
Most of the Japanese fans were there to enjoy the game. They didn’t have great allegiance one way or the other.
I don’t think anyone thought there would be so much excitement. The worry about the tournament was that the smaller games would get lost, because Japan isn’t a major rugby country and people wouldn’t be inclined to go to those games.
But because Japan got to the quarterfinals and rugby became so popular, it became the hottest ticket in town. The atmosphere at the games was outstanding. I can’t think of a game that had a flat atmosphere.
The thing that struck me was the amount of goodwill around. The embracing of foreigners, which hasn’t always been the case in Japan. The Japanese people really took to the tournament and understood how big the World Cup is. I thought they embraced that fully.
In terms of rugby, you had some good rugby and some not-so-good rugby. I think everyone was buoyed by the fact that Japan continued its progress up the ladder and produced a couple of upsets.
I wasn’t surprised by how well the Japan team performed. I thought the Brave Blossoms would go close to making the quarterfinals, because they were the home team and conditions were difficult. A lot of the games were played in really hot, humid conditions. They were the best-prepared for those conditions of any team.
They definitely played Ireland in those conditions. And once they beat Ireland, I think there was almost a narrative about them beating Scotland, particularly with the typhoon. It was just so strong that it didn’t surprise me at all.
There’s no reason why the Brave Blossoms can’t build on what they achieved. They’ve shown what can be achieved if you set your mind to a task, you’re prepared to do the hard work and prepared to have the courage to play your own sort of rugby. There’s a limit, but it’s a far better limit making the quarterfinals than not winning a World Cup game in 24 years.
I just look at the young Japanese players coming through. They’re physically so much better than they were before. They can keep going. Whether they can reach those heights again, no one knows. But there’s no reason why they can’t keep improving.
The big thing is for the Japan Rugby Football Union to make sure it manages the national team well, and gives it every opportunity to be at its best.
Which means pushing hard for Tier-One test matches, pushing hard to get inclusion in championships, and at the bottom end, making sure that kids who are attracted to rugby now stay attracted to rugby through good coaching and improved facilities.
The tournament culminated in South Africa winning, which was great for South Africa but bad for England. Twenty teams go there wanting to win, two teams get to the final. We weren’t quite good enough in the final.
It was obviously very disappointing that we couldn’t be at our best in the final, but that’s the way it rolls out. You’re better off being in the final and getting beaten than not being there at all, and we were there. We couldn’t get ourselves in our best condition for the game, but I thought we played some good rugby, some dominant rugby, and gave ourselves a shot at winning it.
Who would have thought, 20 years ago, that Japan could host a brilliant World Cup and be in the top eight in the world? No one would have thought that. If you’d said that, you would have been put in a loony bin. So there’s no reason why rugby in Japan can’t keep growing.
I wouldn’t miss the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for the world. I reckon it will be absolutely fantastic. If they do three-quarters as good a job as they’ve done with the World Cup, it will be a great Olympics.
I think there’s a bit of a Japan boom at the moment. I think with the excitement of the World Cup and the excitement of the Olympics, it’s become a country that people want to come to again. I think they’ll attract a lot of people in 2020.
Eddie Jones is the head coach of England’s national rugby team. He coached Japan from 2012 to 2015.
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