Countdown to the 2019 Rugby World Cup: Is Japan Ready?

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As Japan prepares for next month’s games, we ask the experts to weigh in on the build-up, the hurdles and the potential for reshaping the landscape of international rugby.

“The God of rugby smiled on us today… I am filled with emotion to be a part of this historic day for Japan and for rugby around the world.” This heartfelt statement was uttered by Yoshihiro Sato, the president of the Japan Rugby Football Union. It was Tuesday July 28, 2009, the day that sealed Japan’s fate as 2019 Rugby World Cup hosts.

Fast forward 10 years and the landmark event is set to kick off in Japan on September 20. It will be the ninth iteration of rugby’s greatest showcase, yet the first occasion for it to be held outside of the “developed” rugby world. 

Given the current cultural interest in Japan worldwide, and the desirable reputation of the host nation, this World Cup presents an invigorating prospect for fans, and likewise for even the most seasoned of pros. As Irish captain Rory Best told me during an interview in June: “[After receiving the Irish captaincy in 2016] It felt like a great opportunity to knuckle down, see how long I could last and give myself every opportunity to go somewhere as exciting as that to play in a World Cup.”

While bringing the Rugby World Cup to a new country – and one that is still finding its footing in the global game – is accompanied by eager anticipation, it also puts serious pressure on the powers that be to deliver an experience that is fitting of the competition’s rich history, while celebrating the first-time host nation.

The Committee

In this case, the powers that be are the Rugby World Cup Organising Committee, a 300-strong team who are working tirelessly in the build-up to the tournament. To see how things are going, I visited the committee’s Tokyo headquarters, and the feeling I got was enough to instill further hope in me that this World Cup could live up to its billing. In spite of the huge volume of work involved in organizing an event of this scale – 12 host cities, 20 international teams, up to 500,000 traveling fans – there is a palpable sense of positivity permeating the air at their offices. This feeling is echoed in the words of Akira Shimazu, CEO of the Rugby World Cup Organising Committee: “As we count down the days until kick-off, there is a real sense of excitement across the organising committee. We are in a solid position in terms of our preparations and are putting the final touches on the remaining elements.”

The Challenges

Nevertheless, preparing for a World Cup in Japan offers up a unique slew of challenges, not least of which concern the cultural differences between Japan and the visiting nations. The Japanese typically excel at hosting big events, but when foreign visitors are thrown into the mix, there is potential for certain complications to arise. One concern that has stolen the local rugby headlines of late is that some stadiums may not be sufficiently prepared for the boisterous hordes of thirsty foreign fans. International rugby fans drink an estimated average of four to six beers per person over an 80-minute game, a number that well exceeds the norm at Japanese sporting events. 

“International rugby fans drink an estimated average of four to six beers per person over an 80-minute game”

And the concerns don’t end at the stadiums. Whether bars, restaurants and hotels will be suitably locked and loaded with the necessary facilities and resources to accommodate the exponential increase in foreign guests is another frequently voiced concern. 

The committee is far from blind to these issues. They have been in constant communication with the relevant stadiums and public house proprietors across the nation. Shimazu assures me, “We have also spent considerable time communicating to local businesses in our host cities on how best they can prepare to welcome the expected 500,000 international visitors and make the most of this incredible opportunity.”

Mark Spencer, one of the owners of the popular Legend Sports and Hobgoblin bars in Tokyo, shares some insight on his own preparations: “We will open every day from noon for the duration of the World Cup, and at Legends we will set up a mobile bar outside to cater for the large crowds.”

The Lasting Legacy 

The tournament’s impact extends well beyond the Japanese hospitality industry, too. Japan has pulled a golden ticket and the internal rugby sphere could reap the rewards if the committee, and the Japanese Rugby Football Union, play their cards right. 

Amateur rugby in Japan is one of the major areas that pales in comparison to the country’s European and Southern Hemisphere counterparts. Without a robust grassroots and amateur structure, they will continue to struggle to contend at the highest level. 

Tokyo Gaijin Rugby Football Club chairman, Tommy Nasuno, agrees that this is an important element of the World Cup’s legacy, but feels the structure isn’t quite in place yet: “[Financially] there’s not much going on; hopefully that will come as a result of the World Cup.” 

Ushering in these changes is a major component of the committee’s agenda. “Building a positive and lasting legacy off the back of the 2019 Rugby World Cup is one of our most important focus areas,” Shimazu tells me. “We are working to actively grow both participation [in numbers] and the rugby fanbase in Japan.” 

One of the main ways they aim to achieve this is through investment in new state-of-the-art training facilities and stadium upgrades, which will increase the number of places to watch and play rugby in Japan. This will have a trickle-down effect through every stratum of the Japanese rugby bedrock, with all team equipment being absorbed into the grassroots of the sport. 

A mention should also be made of the legacy of the Tokyo-based Super Rugby team, the Sunwolves. Following the decision of SANZAAR (the joint South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina rugby board) to mercilessly cull the Tokyo Sunwolves from one of the world’s top club rugby tournaments – the Super Rugby league – they are now approaching their last season as a top-level club in 2020. The World Cup may offer a small shot at Japanese redemption. If the hosts can muster up a strong campaign, it will go a long way to proving that their only true professional club side deserve to be playing among the best in the world. While it would be too little too late in terms of changing their fate, it provides an interesting subplot for the Rugby World Cup, and an even greater incentive to get behind Japan during the tournament. 

Changing the Rugby Landscape?

The most poignant influence of all could be how this World Cup affects the sport in years to come. The International Rugby Board (IRB) took a gamble by deciding to bring rugby’s most celebrated competition to a country still on the fringes of the international game. Shimazu suspects that “the successful hosting of the Rugby World Cup 2019 will help pave the way for other frontier rugby nations to host the tournament. It would be a great legacy of this tournament and a testament to Japanese rugby.” How fitting that in a host nation renowned for its tectonic activity, the Japanese World Cup has a real chance to reshape the future landscape of international rugby. 


Photograph courtesy of World Rugby

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