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Nahoko Yamamoto and Kei Fukuoka are exactly the kind of people the heads of Japanese rugby had in mind when they bid to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

The two work colleagues, who both live in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, had never been to a rugby game before they got tickets to the South Africa vs. Canada first-round match at the tournament last October, but they were immediately won over by the atmosphere inside Kobe Misaki Stadium.

“The thing I remember most is that South Africa was very strong, so Canada was trying all it could just to score one try,” Fukuoka says. “Canada eventually scored and all the fans, including the South African fans, cheered. There was a sense of unity in the crowd, and that really moved me.”

The experience turned Yamamoto and Fukuoka into overnight rugby fans, and they both went to watch their local Top League team, Kobelco Steelers, play their season-opening game against Canon Eagles in January, a match attended by 23,004 supporters. Fukuoka even went to watch Kobelco play two preseason games, and she says her “heart skipped a beat” when she saw former New Zealand All Blacks legend and then-Steelers flyhalf Dan Carter up close.

Then, after six rounds of a domestic season that was enjoying record crowds and riding the momentum of a wildly successful World Cup, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe and league executives decided to scrap play for the rest of the year.

Yamamoto and Fukuoka say they are looking forward to watching games when the Top League returns next January and a host of world-class stars arrive, including New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw.

Players celebrate after defeating Scotland in Yokohama on Oct. 13, 2019, booking Japan a place in its first Rugby World Cup quarterfinal. | KYODO
Players celebrate after defeating Scotland in Yokohama on Oct. 13, 2019, booking Japan a place in its first Rugby World Cup quarterfinal. | KYODO

Their continued interest in the sport, however, should not be taken for granted.

“Top League stadiums are pretty far out of the way, and you don’t really see many rugby games on TV, either,” Fukuoka says. “I was watching games broadcast from New Zealand on Saturdays and Sundays, but when the Japanese baseball season started, the channel stopped showing rugby games live. If it’s not easy to watch, it will be too difficult for people to get into.”

This month marks a year since Japan began hosting Asia’s first-ever Rugby World Cup, which was held from Sept. 20 to Nov. 2 at 12 stadiums around the country and ended with South Africa beating England 32-12 in the final in front of 70,103 fans at International Stadium Yokohama.

The tournament was universally hailed as a success, and figures released in March by rugby’s governing body, World Rugby, showed that it was the most-watched rugby event ever, with more than 857 million people worldwide tuning into games.

In Japan, a total cumulative audience of 425 million watched games on TV — five times the Japanese viewership for the previous tournament in England in 2015. Japan’s 28-21 win over Scotland, which gave the Brave Blossoms a place in the quarterfinals for the first time ever, was watched by a domestic TV audience of 54.8 million — more than those who tuned into the 2002 soccer World Cup final.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup was also a financial success, and a report by EY, published in June, revealed that the tournament generated £4.3 billion ($5.6 billion) in economic output, adding £2.3 billion ($3 billion) to Japan’s GDP.

When the heads of Japanese rugby indicated their interest in hosting the tournament in August 2008, however, they were looking for more than just a six-week jamboree to help fill the coffers and please television executives. They were looking to create a legacy that would help establish rugby as a major sport alongside Japan’s twin pillars of baseball and soccer, and allow the national team to compete consistently with the world’s best teams.

Fans at a public viewing site in Fukuoka celebrate Japan's first try during its Rugby World Cup match against Scotland on Oct. 13, 2019. | KYODO
Fans at a public viewing site in Fukuoka celebrate Japan’s first try during its Rugby World Cup match against Scotland on Oct. 13, 2019. | KYODO

One year on from the start of the tournament, Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) Chairman Kensuke Iwabuchi is keenly aware that Japanese rugby has been handed an opportunity it cannot afford to squander.

“We have to make the most of it,” Iwabuchi says. “That’s going to be the biggest job for the JRFU in the years to come.

“The biggest challenge is that it’s very difficult to build something bigger than the World Cup. The World Cup is where the best teams and the best players from around the world play each other, and it’s difficult to re-create that on a domestic level. A lot of people who watched the World Cup want to watch the World Cup again. We have to make sure that with our domestic game, we give the fans something they want to see. The most important thing is not to be outdone by the World Cup.”

Complicating matters has been the COVID-19 pandemic. The JRFU was hoping to ride the momentum from the World Cup into the domestic Top League season starting in January, before hosting test matches for the national team in June and July against Wales in Shizuoka and England in Oita and Kobe, then the men’s and women’s sevens competitions at the Tokyo Olympics in late July. All have since been canceled or postponed.

The Top League season started promisingly, with a record total of 116,737 fans attending the opening weekend’s eight games. Play was then suspended after six rounds, and league organizers decided to scrap the season and start again in January 2021, rather than reschedule for later in 2020.

That means fans are left with no senior domestic games to watch for the rest of this year, and with Japan’s professional soccer and baseball leagues up and running after delays to their seasons, some have argued that Japanese rugby could have made more of an effort to get teams back on the field. Ultimately, Iwabuchi says, the decision was taken to allow teams to prepare properly for next season.

The lack of activity has dismayed Hiroshi Moriyama, a 54-year-old rugby superfan better known to the world as “Bak-san.” Moriyama became a global social media sensation last year when he attended 26 World Cup games with the jerseys of the participating teams painted on his upper body, but he has been a fixture at rugby games in Japan for decades.

Japan national team head coach Jamie Joseph believes Japanese players must play regularly against top-quality opposition if they want to keep improving. | KYODO
Japan national team head coach Jamie Joseph believes Japanese players must play regularly against top-quality opposition if they want to keep improving. | KYODO

The Top League, which is made up of corporate teams, will be replaced after the 2021 season by a new league rooted in communities, and has drawn interest from 25 existing teams. The launch of the league has been delayed from autumn 2021 to January 2022, but with little else to excite rugby fans at the moment, Moriyama believes more could be done to hype it up.

“You can’t blame everything on the coronavirus,” Moriyama says. “Of course, it has played a part, but even if you can’t play games, there are other things you can do. To keep people interested, you have to tell them about your plans. Sometimes you’ll hear scraps of information about the new league, but it’s not moving quickly and there’s not much to get excited about. All you get is stuff like ‘there will be 25 teams,’ or ‘there will be three divisions.’ I don’t think that’s going to get ordinary members of the public excited.”

The details of the new league have yet to be finalized, but the aim is to raise Japan’s domestic game to a level where its players can compete with the world’s best. That has become even more pressing now that the Sunwolves, the Tokyo-based team that competed in the Southern Hemisphere’s prestigious Super Rugby competition from 2016 to 2020, were disbanded in June.

The Sunwolves’ fate was sealed in March 2019 when SANZAAR, the body that runs Super Rugby, announced that the team would be cut after the 2020 season. The Sunwolves won just eight games over four full seasons and finished bottom of their division every year.

Reports have speculated that the Sunwolves may yet return in one competition or another, but, whatever happens, Japan national team head coach Jamie Joseph believes Japanese players must play regularly against top-quality opposition if they want to keep improving.

“When we started with the Sunwolves, it was really hard to win matches,” says Joseph, who also coached the Sunwolves during the 2018 season. “But when it came to the ultimate test, which was the World Cup, our participation with the Sunwolves in Super Rugby was a real reason why the team was so successful. If it’s not Super Rugby, there needs to be a level of rugby that exposes our players to a higher level of football, and indirectly prepares them for Test matches and then, ultimately, the World Cup in 2023.”

Fifty-four-year-old Hiroshi Moriyama, aka
Fifty-four-year-old Hiroshi Moriyama, aka “Bak-san,” has been a fixture at rugby games in Japan for years. | REUTERS

Speculation has also been rife over the future of Joseph’s national team. The Brave Blossoms are the only one of last year’s World Cup quarterfinal sides that does not play in a regular international competition, but that could change in the near future.

Japan has been invited to take part in a one-off, eight-team tournament in Europe this November, also featuring the Six Nations sides and Fiji. The JRFU has reportedly turned down the offer, however, because the government’s travel restrictions on overseas passport holders mean members of the coaching staff cannot enter Japan to prepare for the tournament.

Despite that, the Brave Blossoms could potentially go on to become a regular member of either the Six Nations or the Southern Hemisphere’s Rugby Championship, and Joseph believes his team’s World Cup performance has put Japan in a strong position.

“There’s a real appetite for international teams to come to Japan now that they’ve experienced the World Cup here,” Joseph says. “Prior to COVID coming, we had planned to play England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the All Blacks in one year. That would have been the first time that a tier-two team like Japan would have had exposure to such great teams all in one year, and that’s because of the way we performed last year.”

The legacy of a sporting event, however, should go beyond just what happens on the field of play.

The Rugby World Cup was one of the central pillars of the recovery plan drawn up by Kamaishi, the small, rugby-mad Iwate Prefecture city that was devastated by the tsunami that followed the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. A total of 993 people in Kamaishi died in the disaster, with another 152 unaccounted for. Thirty percent of homes in the area were damaged or destroyed, and 60 percent of businesses were inundated with water.

More than 23,000 fans attended the opening Top League match between Kobe Steelers and Canon Eagles in January. | KYODO
More than 23,000 fans attended the opening Top League match between Kobe Steelers and Canon Eagles in January. | KYODO

In March 2015, Kamaishi was chosen as a World Cup host venue and later awarded two first-round games, and construction began on a new stadium on the former site of the local elementary school and junior high school, which were both destroyed by the tsunami.

“Most people were in favor, but some were against it,” says Takeshi Nagata, an official at Kamaishi City’s Rugby World Cup headquarters and a former player and coach with the local rugby team, Kamaishi Seawaves. “Some people didn’t think we should be hosting the World Cup when their lives still hadn’t recovered.

“When it was still being decided which cities would host the games, of course there were people who didn’t think it was appropriate. But once it had been decided, people started thinking about what they could do before the tournament started. People wanted to express their gratitude for the help they received after the disaster.”

In the event, Kamaishi played host to one of the games of the tournament, with underdog Uruguay stunning Fiji 30-27 in front of 14,025 fans. The city’s other scheduled match, however, did not take place. Namibia vs. Canada was canceled amid the damage caused by Typhoon Hagibis, and the pictures in the next day’s newspapers were of Canadian players helping to clean up mud rather than playing rugby.

The cancellation was a bitter disappointment for locals who had been preparing for the tournament for years, but Kamaishi Mayor Takenori Noda believes the overall World Cup experience has helped transform the city’s outlook.

“Young people here knew there would be a lot of visitors coming to their backwoods town from all over the world, and they made plans and took part in activities to prepare for that,” Noda says. “That will give them a lot of confidence. They wanted to express their thanks for the help they got after the disaster, and they were aware they were playing a leading role in telling that to the world.

“It was a rugby tournament, but it wasn’t just about rugby,” he continues. “It was about life and looking to the future. We suffered a disaster, but you can overcome that and keep looking ahead. You can create hope for yourself. I think this gave us the power to do that. You can see the difference in the children’s eyes.”

Fans watch the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal between Japan and South Africa in a bar in Tokyo on Oct. 20, 2019. | REUTERS
Fans watch the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal between Japan and South Africa in a bar in Tokyo on Oct. 20, 2019. | REUTERS

Nagata says many children have joined Kamaishi Seawaves’ junior teams since the World Cup, and JRFU Chairman Iwabuchi claims more young people across the country are playing rugby than before. He acknowledges that opportunities for children to get involved in the sport often depend on which school they go to, but he says progress is being made and points to the introduction of tag rugby at elementary schools around the country.

Iwabuchi also says people throwing a rugby ball around has become a more common sight in parks across Japan since the World Cup, and it is this groundswell of grass-roots interest that the JRFU knows it must nurture if it wants to make the most of the tournament’s legacy.

For new fans such as Yamamoto, who watched the South Africa vs. Canada game with her friend in Kobe, her first experience of rugby has left a lasting impression.

“It was different from baseball,” Yamamoto says. “More than supporting their own teams, it was like the fans were supporting rugby as a whole.

“It was great to sample the atmosphere and feel the unity of the crowd. That was really something. It made me realize what rugby was all about, and it made me want to go and watch more.”

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