Well technically not, as it’s only the third biggest global sporting event. A mere 20 nations qualifying after an exhaustive elimination process, however, the tournament is three times longer at six-weeks and 12 venues from Hokkaido to Kyushu. The influx of foreign invaders will be the greatest since Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1853 at Shimoda.
Perennial favourites the All Blacks from New Zealand will be looking for an unprecedented three-peat, having won the last two incarnations in 2011 & 2015. Although, Ireland will go into the tournament as World No. 1, due to the quirky World Rugby algorithm that determines placings. Never before have the ‘Men in Green’ made a RWC Final, although their Quarter-Final match against RWC1991 winners, the Wallabies, at Landsdown Road will go down as ‘the one that got away‘.
The teams descending on Japan, somewhat delayed due to Typhoon Faxai, should be embraced by the Japanese populous along with the tsunami of international supporters. Rugby people are a different breed: beer-swilling aficionados as opposed to football (soccer in the English speaking world outside of England) hooligans. They will appreciate the culture, the ceremonies, the nature and the history that abounds there; as well as the onsen or hot springs, the most renowned are found in Beppu, Kyushu; with matches played in Oita, including two very important quarter-finals, these are a must-see (map below).
Visiting Japan 12 months out from the Rugby World Cup I got a sense that the ‘general’ Japanese population were somewhat unaware of the tournament. When questioned they would reply with, “Tokyo 2020?” Just last week at a theme park on the Gold Coast some university students visiting from Japan on their summer break in Australia looked puzzled when I said I was going to Japan for the Rugby World Cup (admittedly, they were from Ibaraki Prefecture, an hour or so north of Tokyo on the Joban Line, where no matches are being played). Also in Australia, when people ask why I am going to Japan the response often is, “Do they play rugby in Japan?”
Undoubtedly, when RWC2019begins this Friday at Ajinomoto Stadium the vast majority will get on board. Not everyone is a diehard rugby fan, but when a spectacle such as the Rugby World Cup is on your doorstep you can be assured that the populous will respond and Japanese ‘omotenashi‘ (hospitality) will come to the fore. At the 2015 tournament, 25 million in Japan tuned in to watch Japan v Samoa on their television sets, so the interest is there. The other takeout from that tournament held in the UK was the 34-32 last-minute win over the Springboksby the Japanese Brave Blossoms; recreated in cinema with the just-released “Miracle in Brighton“.
Rugby Union has a long history in Japan dating from 1866 in Yokohama and, while being more popular in the universities, the company based Top League has started to attract larger crowds. Unfortunately, Japan’s Super Rugbyteam the Sunwolves will be axed from the competition after the 2020 season, though I’m sure their company based Top League will eventually open up to international teams from Hong Kong and Perth (convincing the JRFU will be a challenge, though).
All and all this bodes well for a spectacular tournament that I am very much looking forward to attending. 楽しみですネ‼
The audacity of Israel Folau to launch a ‘Go fund me’ page in an effort to raise $3 million to fund his legal battle against Rugby Australia is bewildering, to say the least. Let’s not forget that it was Israel Folau who made a Homophobic Social Media post which led to Folau’s sacking by Rugby Australia. Whether Rugby Australia was justified in sacking Folau or not will now be decided in the Courts, but for Folau in effect to ask the Public to fund his Legal case is a sad indictment of where Folau is now at and the poor advice that he is receiving. It would appear that Folau has conveniently forgotten what he wrote last year when he stated that if he was “hurting Rugby Australia, it’s sponsors and the Australian Rugby Community to such a degree that things couldn’t be worked through – I would walk away from My contract, immediately” (Players Voice, 2018).
Some former Wallabies greats Mark Gerrard and Drew Mitchell, in particular, have come out and slammed Folau for his plea for fans to fund his Legal action to the extent that Mitchell posted the following on Twitter.
“YOU are in a fight that YOU chose to be in after YOU broke the terms of YOUR contract, the kids below are in a fight they NEVER wanted to be in & yet YOU think YOU deserve donations more than they do?!!”
Mitchell was referring to a ‘Go Fund Me’ page set up to help a child with ‘Neuroblastoma’.
Folau has now caused a deep divide in the Australian Rugby Community and hurts a lot of people across all walks of Life, the questions that have to be asked are, was it all worth it and is Israel Folau his own Man, or is he being driven and guided by his Father?
Last Saturday, Australia’s generation next stepped up to the plate to defeat the All Blacks U20s for the first time in the Oceania Rugby U20s Championships at Bond University on the Gold Coast. The four nation comp, including Fiji and Japan, that played their final match at 5pm, was a great success. In front of a strong crowd of 2,136 people, a changing of the guard, so to speak, was on display as the Junior Wallabies, coached by Jason Gilmore, kept their Kiwi counterparts scoreless with a 24-0 victory. Such luminaries as World Rugby CEO, Brett Gosper, and Gold Coast Mayor, Tom Tate, were on hand to witness the spectacle.
Led by captain Fraser McReight from the Brothers club in Brisbane and a Reds contracted player, the Junior Wallabies worked hard to keep the Kiwis scoreless, going to the sheds after the first 40 minutes up 12-0 from four penalty kicks by Randwick No. 10, Will Harrison. Two tries in the second half, including a spectacular cross kick to Junior Wallaby winger Triston Reilly to score and captain courageous, Fraser McReight crashing over in the 71st minute sealed the 24-0 victory ahead of the U20s World Championships in Argentina next month, June 4th~22nd.
“I don’t think an Under 20s side has ever done that (win against New Zealand) in a very long time and we can take confidence in that, and that’s so unreal and I can’t wait for the future, and I can’t wait to win that Junior Rugby World Cup .”
Junior Wallabies captain, Fraser McReight
Such a great tournament run by Oceania Rugby and Rugby Australia and hosted by the magnificent facilities at Bond University. Real credit to Director of Rugby at Bond, Luca Luisse, and his team for once again providing such great support which hopefully bodes well for the continuation of this tournament. World Rugby boss Brett Gosper was particularly impressed by the facilities Bond University has to offer.
“The facilities here at Bond (University) are really first class.
Wonderful grounds, what a beautiful setting for a rugby game like this.”
Brett Gosper, World Rugby CEO.
The Japanese side captained by Shota Fukui, who also scored the first try in the 6th minute, put up a strong showing to hold the Fijians to the narrowest of leads, 28-27, by the halftime mark. As the second half began, a penalty kick by mercurial fly-half, Rintaro Maruyama, saw the young Brave Blossoms ahead 30-28. Then the Fijians ran ahead, initially breaking the deficit in the 51st minute through their speedy fullback, Ratu Osea Waqaninavatu, to make the score 35-30, then a further four more tries to win 59-37 after one of Japan’s best on the field player, industrious No. 8 Takamasa Muruo, scored his third try of the match in the 73rd minute. Gosper and myself were impressed by the tenacity of the relatively smaller Japanese side’s awesome tackling display against the larger South Pacific Islanders. It was great to see Japan back in this tournament, after a hiatus since 2015; hopefully, they are a part of the setup next year (provided Bond University is once again granted hosting status from Oceania Rugby).
Junior Japan’s Head Coach Yoshitake Mizuma said ahead of this year’s Championship that it is a privilege to be able to compete with the world’s best teams in this age-grade.
“We hope that our boys take advantage of this occasion to foster camaraderie through rugby, interact with many local people and learn about each other’s culture so as to grow as a person,” Mizuma added
With Japan being awarded this year’s Rugby World Cup, you could be thinking that the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) would be going out of their way to promote the game. On closer inspection it looks like quite the opposite.
Firstly, the JRFU basically cancelled the Top League Competition for the 2019-20 season, replacing it with two mini tourneys in 2020. Then they told SANZAAR in March that they really didn’t think Super Rugby was the best way to develop the national side and now former Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori, call’s for the JRFU to be reformed after announcing his shock resignation last week as the organisation’s honorary chairman. He is the man responsible for Japan hosting RWC2019.
Mori-san is not the only one at odds with the JRFU, as former Japan national coach, Eddie Jones, reiterated with Kyodo News in Japan, yesterday, his opinion regarding the JRFU allowing the Japanese side the Sunwolves to be disabandoned after the 2020 Super Rugby season.
“If Japan wants to be a top 10 country in the world, which they do, they need their players to be prepared,” the current England coach, Jones, said.
“The purpose of the Sunwolves was to give opportunities for young Japanese players to prepare for test rugby, because ultimately like any rugby country you want your national team to be strong and your grassroots to be strong, and in between you work out the right structure.
“What Japan was missing was that opportunityfor younger players to go from a good domestic Top League into a higher level of competition without being exposed to test level, and the Sunwolves provided that opportunity. It hasn’t worked out for them and I think it is a massive opportunity missed.“
Eddie Jones speaking with Kyodo News’ Rich Freeman in Yokohama.
Remembering, of course, that Eddie Jones prepared the Japanese Team for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, so he knows what he’s talking about. Putting his chargers through a somewhat grueling experience on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu ahead of that tourney, they certainly reaped the glory with their win at RWC2015 in Brighton. To overcome the might of South Africa’s Springboks at rugby’s showcase tournament is the story of legends and a movie under the title of, ‘Miracle in Brighton,’ is already underway.
World Rugby Chairman, Bill Beaumont, has used the World Cup in Japan to promote rugby throughout Asia with a target of one million new participants. In December last year, Beaumont announced that this target has been achieved at a special event celebrating 50 years of Asia Rugby in Bangkok.
While the vast majority of those numbers have been in Japan, about 460,000. Many of which have been involved in one off tournaments such as the one I attended at the YC&AC grounds last September in Yokohama run by Australian Peter Gibson called the “Hero’s Cup” with former Japan captain Hitoshi Ono.
According to veteran rugby scribe in Japan and good friend, Rich Freeman, the inflated numbers for Japan are not telling the true story. As rugby numbers are actually on the decline.
“In the present way it’s structured it just doesn’t work. Schools are losing rugby clubs big time,” Freeman says.
“Rugby is struggling, especially at school level, so they’re going to have to change the way it’s structured.”
The main problem is that there are no consistent pathways, unless your child attends a rugby school and that is the only sport they are allowed to play 330-340 days a year. Those that don’t attend are going to feel left out after the World Cup with nowhere to play rugby.
“You’re going to have all these young kids saying, ‘Wow, I watched Beauden Barrett play and he did this, I want to play,’ but unless there are more clubs like Koji’s (Tokumasu) Shibuya Rugby Club, where are they going to go?”
Koji Tokumasu runs the Shibuya Rugby Club which is one of only a few clubs introducing Tokyo kids to the sport through tag rugby. He is a senior director for #RWC2019 organising committee and says the JRFU needs to pick up it’s act.
“Every Sunday we have over 300 under 12’s playing tag rugby and even if they don’t have the opportunity to play at school they can play at our club. I’m hoping and confident that will increase, so the Japan Rugby Union and schools should be prepared to open the door when this happens.”
The urgency for exposure is apparent with only six months before the Cup kicks off at Tokyo Stadium (Ajinomoto Stadium) on September 20th with Japan hosting Russia in Pool A. Many people I talked to in Japan last year were overawed by Japan’s success at the last World Cup in England four years earlier. Not just the win over South Africa, the match between Japan and Samoa achieved a television audience record of 25 million in Japan.
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.
On Sunday, fans braved the second half rain at Bond University to watch the National Rugby Championship semi-final between last year’s premiers Queensland Country and the Western Force. The star-studded Country outfit did not fail to impress from the getgo with tries aplenty in the first 20 minutes. None more so than 2018 Reds bolter, 18-year-old Jordan Petaia. Some very impressive running from the young Wallabies squad member playing at outside-centre with two tries in 15 minutes under the watchful eye of Reds coach Brad Thorn, who was standing beside me. From our vantage point, Caleb Timu also ran in for a five-pointer, on the blindside, with the Western Force down to 13 men.
Hamish Stewart did not bring his kicking boots which proved costly in the first half as Qld Country went to the sheds up only 20-14, after Western Force kicker, Ian Prior, converted their first two tries. Stewart did make-up for his earlier failures with the boot in the second half with two conversions and two penalty goals, but leaving points out there was scrutinised by Reds coach Thorn.
In the 53rd minute, referee Damon Murphy called the match off due to the lightning in the area, but after about 15 minutes the play was back on. A few spectators left at this juncture, however, there were plenty that stayed, eager to watch more from the impressive Queensland Country outfit. The final score was 45-24 to the home side, booking them a place in next weeks final in Suva against Fiji Drua.
Queensland Country coach, Rod Seib, said, “I’m really pleased with the team’s performance today. The team delivered.”
Some real standout performances by Caleb Timu and Angus Scott-Young that should see them get a future call-up to the Wallabies.
The last Rugby World Cup of the century began with much fanfare at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff two weeks ago. The top seeds won their pool games quite easily through the second week provided some interesting results.
The first real match-ups of rugby heavyweights took place last weekend with New Zealand verse England and Australia v Ireland.
In the former game, England realised it had to play 15-man rugby to repeat their finals appearance of 1991, but the superiority of the All Blacks came to the fore in Jonah Lomu. As in the 1995 tournament, the 58th minute proved Lomu was back with a trademark 60 metre run through the English backs to break the 16-16 deadlock.
New Zealand scored a further try by in-form halfback replacement Byron Kelleher and took the match 30-16.
In the latter match, the passionate Irish couldn’t back up their rough play with any try-scoring opportunities and the Wallabies went away with two tries to win a scrappy contest 23-3.
Instrumental in the win was mid-field saviour Tim Horan. As he was in the successful 1991 campaign three-Cup veteran Horan is the centre of attack.
I caught up with Tim Horan before he and the team left Australia a few weeks ago on a typical early spring day in Brisbane.
In contrast to the light rain that fell at Lansdowne Road before Sunday’s match, blue sky with the sun shining brightly greeted me as I parked out the front of Tim’s Queenslander house. His daughter directed me to ‘the office’ where the interview was conducted.
It had been about 10 years since we played in the Colts (under 19) “Dream Team” that won the 1988 Grand Final convincingly and just like then he can still carve through backlines as he proved with vintage aplomb on Sunday against the Irish.
The Aussie campaign to “Bring back Bill”, the affectionate name they have given the William Webb Ellis trophy, is underway and November 6, just three weeks off, is looming as a very significant day for a young nation entering the new millennium.
For also on that day a referendum will be carried out in Australia to decide whether to become a republic or hold onto a dying monarchy. The players have already voted and Captain John Eales had one regret that they won’t be playing England on that day.
“It would have been good to play England in the final,” he said. “We could stuff them on the field – and stuff them in the vote.”
I asked Tim his opinion as to Australia winning the 1999 World Cup. He said, “We have a fairly good chance, but Ireland won’t be easy.”
“At the moment we are concentrating mainly on Wales in the quarters”.
He didn’t seem too concerned about Larkham’s injury noting that it was not as bad as the thumb injury he sustained in a Super 12 match where he had to go off at halftime.
His lack of concern proved justified as Larkham had a solid return to test match level rugby last Sunday and again yesterday against the Americans.
‘At the moment we are concentrating on Wales in the quarters’
Australia’s chances of regaining the Webb Ellis trophy are looking pretty good. As Bob Dwyer stated in his 1992 autobiography that the best two prepared teams contested the final in 1991 and should that be the case this time the Wallabies (and the Kiwis) are starting to come good at the right time.
An emphatic win over the Kiwis at Stadium Australia, 34-9, in front of 107,000+ people was a psychological shot in the arm after some lacklustre games preceding it.
“The atmosphere was ecstatic…great for Australian rugby”, Tim said. “Crowd support like that is something we don’t often get in Australia.”
“In New Zealand and South Africa you come to expect to play 16 (including the crowd) but at Stadium Australia it was excellent.”
This game provided the springboard for Australia’s assault at retaining rugby’s Holy Grail, the Webb Ellis trophy.
In a year that has seen our cricketers, hockey and netball players win their respective world championships it would be another piece of silverware on the mantelpiece of a proud young nation.
Australia’s first match of the tournament was against Romania in Belfast. Once again Tim Horan proved too good for the weak defence and scored in less time then it takes to pour a pint of Guinness (119 seconds).
For his effort, sponsors Guinness will donate £10,000 to the charity of his choice (this probably should go to the under-financed Romanian rugby team).
The tournament run by the Five Nations has had its detractors noting the lop-sided results. But as Sydney Morning Herald writer Peter FitzSimons says, “Wouldn’t rugby league love the chance to show it had a similar array of cultures, backgrounds and socio-economic firepower united through a common passion?”
When Australia hosts the next rugby World Cup in 2003 these same arguments will be brought out along with the problems of where each game will be held.
As rugby has become professional the bottom line has been to make as much return from the game as is put in and that means bums on seats.
At the present World Cup, we have seen good numbers at games in England, France and Wales but poor ones for matches in Scotland.
The Scottish Rugby Union is responsible for this balls-up due to their traditional opposition to any innovations or improvements of the game and their initial rejection of having a World Cup when first raised by the IRB.
I remember asking a Scottish friend about tickets for the World Cup early this year and he told me that even the clubs are finding it hard to obtain any – what a travesty that has proven
Fast forward to 2003 where the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) is calling the shots, will the spectators be looked after then?
Will Queensland, a strong backyard for Wallaby talent, be overlooked for the choice matches by Melbourne; or even Perth?
ARU head, John O’Neill has decided not to give Brisbane a Bledisloe Cup match next year opting for Melbourne where rugby is hardly played because they can guarantee numbers through the turnstiles.
However, when I asked Tim about the lack of major test matches in Brisbane he cited that only 34,000 people came to Suncorp Stadium for the Tri-nations match against South Africa in July.
With the present debates over a super-stadium in Brisbane in the professional age of rugby, Queensland may be left out on a limb.
The debacle when Queensland topped the Super 12 and was given a home semi-final over whether to play at Ballymore or Suncorp Stadium meant that those schoolboys who supported the Reds all season weren’t allowed to use their schoolboy passes.
Subsequently, many locals boycotted and a proportionally larger Kiwi contingent turned up to see Canterbury outplay an uninterested Queensland side.
A further point I raised with Tim was that of the end of season Rico Challenge played between Queensland, New South Wales and ACT.
He supported the concept saying it is a good way for fringe players to get a Super 12 contract.
Although spectators to these games are low if marketed properly and positioned better in the rugby calendar, as proposed, we may see this problem overcome.
Finally, I asked Tim of his plans after the World Cup.
“Well I have another year to go on my Super 12 contract, but after that, I’d like to play in Europe”, he said.
“The pressure of Super 12 and test matches are great and I’d like to relax for a while with my family”.
No chance of following in your father’s footsteps and entering politics?
“No way!!!” he replied.
“You could give me a million bucks for a day in politics and I’d say no.
“For all the hard work my father does he doesn’t seem to get any popular response”.
The interview ended at 3pm as Tim apologized that he had to pick up one of the kids from school.
This weekend the final pool matches of the World Cup will be wrapped up with Pool D looking the closest; the clash between France and Fiji to determine the winner of Pool C being unclear; and England against Tonga no certainty.
“You could give me a million bucks for a day in politics and I’d say no.”
New Zealand’s hundred plus points against Italy was very impressive while Australia’s line was crossed for the first time this tournament by the USA, but went on to win 55-19.
Finishing the top of pool E Australia is guaranteed a semi-final berth, however, they will be without star running loose forward Toutai Kefu banned for 14 days for his toe-to-toe with Ireland’s enforcer Trevor Brennan.
Australian coach Rod McQueen was upset about the “selective citations”, but acknowledges the tournament has been well run.
Whichever team holds aloft the Webb Ellis trophy on November 6 rugby will be the real winner.