In late October I made my way over to the Land of the Rising Sun on a sabbatical to try to really comprehend how rugby is growing in Japan and the fanfare and excitement created around #RWC2019.
My first impressions in Tokyo were that plans were well underway to host the third major global sporting tournament and a buzz was growing amongst the Japanese people. However, I was somewhat delusional inside the bubble of the rugby going public in that first week bookended by the Bledisloe 3 match in Shin-Yokohama on October 27th and the Japanese playing the All Blacks in western Tokyo the week after on November 3. The bubble I refer to was being invited to functions by rugby aficionados in Tokyo from former players of All France, members of the Japanese Rugby Magazine and rugby people at Yokohama Country & Athletic Club.
With my PA, Alisa Okawa, I attended the Third Bledisloe Match between the Australian Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks on Saturday, after arriving the day before, at the cavernous Nissan Stadium in Shin Yokohama. Location of the Football World Cup final in 2002 hosted by Japan and South Korea the 72,327-seat stadium attained a record attendance for an international rugby match in Japan with over 46,000 fans watching the Kiwis defeat the Aussies 37-20. An entertaining match with a strong All Blacks side making a clean sweep of the series against a novice Wallabies outfit that will befit greatly from the exposure a year out from the World Cup. In what could be heralded as a preview to the RWC2019 final, as was the case for the RWC2015 final, these two behemoths of the World Cup era in rugby holding three and two Webb Ellis trophies respectively may not end up the finalists after the annus horribilis the Wallabies have endured in 2018 winning only 3 of 12 tests.
The week that followed was catching up with old rugby mates in Tokyo and discussing proposals with stakeholders that set to benefit from Japan hosting the World Cup. I even managed to pull on the boots to play a rugby match at YC&AC in Yokohama over 20 years since I had last played on that ground in the 1990s. To my surprise, there was a schoolboy/girl tournament going on there sponsored by Aussie Beef. Former Brave Blossoms representative and current Toshiba Brave Limpus stalwart, Hiroshi Ono or Kin-chan as the locals call him, was in attendance to give clout to the event that hosted teams from New Zealand and Australia. Great to see rugby being promoted in this soccer/baseball-mad country. I really hope the Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU) can really capitalise on the exposure rugby is getting through the RWC2019. Talking with Kyodo news rugby correspondent, Rich Freeman, after my match, he seemed somewhat pessimistic with the Japanese Top League being abandoned for the 2019-20 season. He also thought they should have lowered the ticket price for the Bledisloe Cup match to try for a sellout crowd after the rugby public had just forked out for World Cup tickets. It will be interesting to see how any benefit can come from hosting this event.
For my second week I made my way up into the mountains of central Japan to Nagano where a good friend of mine, Hide, lives in the City of Ueda. He showed me the rugby town of Sugadaira on the outskirts of Ueda where the high school rugby teams from all over Japan gather in summer to go through their paces. Driving through the town you can’t help but be overawed by everything rugby from the rugby ball monument in the centre of town to the Canterbury store, amongst other rugby brands, scattered throughout. Even the 7/11 store caters for sports supplements not common at other franchise locations in Japan. These highlands are where the Italian rugby union team will be based during the six-week tournament starting in September next year.
Heading back to Tokyo for my final weekend I felt somewhat disheartened by the fact that what I initially thought was an excitement for the RWC2019 was, in fact, more a curiosity as to what it would entail. Overshadowed by the Tokyo2020 Olympics, rugby still as a long way to go to capture the minds and souls of this unique homogeneous society reluctant to cash in on the tourism bonanza this event will bring. A chance to really open up and embrace the outside world could be missed unless something drastic is done. I will offer my services to ensure the success of this event and rugby sevens at the Olympics because there is a true bond of camaraderie born from rugby players and their fans.