Japan excels as World Cup host, must ride the rugby wave

November 3, 2019

TOKYO (AP) — Three years into his second stint living in Japan, Peter Musgrave takes his young son to a park in central Tokyo and sees people throwing around a rugby ball.

"It's chalk and cheese to when I first lived here," the 40-year-old Musgrave says.

Back in those days, from 2006-12, the bank worker from England barely noticed rugby in the Japanese capital unless he "went out to a foreigner bar to watch a game." The Brave Blossoms, as Japan's national team is affectionately called, were conceding nearly 100 points in games against the sport's major powers.

The thought of an audience of around 55 million — representing close to half the population — watching on TV as Japan won a rugby match with breathtaking skill to power into the quarterfinals at a home Rugby World Cup would have been consigned to the realms of fantasy.

Yet that's what happened in this 2019 global showpiece, the first Rugby World Cup to be held in Asia. It's been an absolute blast, an eye-opener not just for the estimated half-million traveling fans from 19 other competing countries but also for the Japanese people who have been such courteous and polite hosts.

There was the scene of 15,000 people turning up to watch Wales' first practice session of the tournament. Some arrived three hours before practice, lining up for more than a kilometer outside Kitakyushu Stadium.

How about Oita, the land of hot springs in the most southwestern of Japan's main islands and a place that could never be described as a rugby hotbed, welcoming fans of France, England, Wales and Australia for one memorable quarterfinal weekend? Locals, merely passing by pubs and bars, joined in the revelry, some being lifted up like they were second-row forwards in a lineout.

From Fukuroi to Fukuoka, from Kamaishi to Kumamoto, lasting memories have been made in this 6½-week tournament that has been 10 years in the planning but will draw to a close Saturday when England plays South Africa in the final.

So when the World Cup circus leaves town, what will be left behind? How does Japan sustain the rugby fever?

"I have a little worry, yes," former Japan rugby captain Toshiaki Hirose told The Associated Press. "Four years ago, we beat South Africa in the World Cup and a lot of Japanese people watched it. Now, I think Japanese people understand rugby as well, and respect the passion.

"I think there is an environment where kids want to start playing rugby but we should have this environment more, not just in the cities but also in the countryside."

Rugby lags behind baseball, soccer and others in the list of the most popular sports here. There are 92,000 registered rugby players — a 10th of the number in soccer — and there is a participation rate among teenagers of 1.5%, according to the most recent white paper on sport in Japan . Rugby tied ninth among the most popular spectator sports in Japan and didn't feature in the top 10 of most popular sports watched on TV.

The country has a 16-team domestic league, but only five Top League games in the entirety of last season attracted a crowd of more than 5,000 spectators.

Japan has had a team, the Tokyo-based Sunwolves, playing in the leading southern-hemisphere provincial competition — Super Rugby — since 2015 against rivals from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina. But they are about to be disbanded, leading to much uncertainty about their future.

Meanwhile, at grassroots level, Hirose says most kids can only choose one sport in which to specialize at school — and invariably that's baseball or soccer. There is also a shortage of age-group facilities, top-class coaches and even grass fields, says Musgrave.

"You have to be careful," says Andrew Fielder, a 41-year-old IT worker who also an expat in Tokyo. "Children need to have quality instructors otherwise they could hurt themselves. I would be worried. You'd want to be sure they have the right level of instruction, certification."

Musgrave and his 6-year-old son, Hugo, went along last week with Fielder and his 5-year-old son, Theon, to a Rugby Introduction Day staged by the Japan Rugby Football Union and World Cup sponsor Land Rover to encourage a younger generation to play the game in the wake of Japan's unprecedented run to the quarterfinals.

Among the superstar ex-players running the event were England World Cup winners Jonny Wilkinson and Lawrence Dallaglio, who have seen first-hand the new support for the Brave Blossoms.

"It was only a couple of World Cups ago that they were losing by large scores," Dallaglio said, likely recalling the 83-7 loss to New Zealand in 2011. "What they've done in the last eight years is phenomenal, so if they can continue that development ... the next generation hopefully will have been inspired by their heroes that they've witnessed out on the field."

Japan, a so-called Tier Two rugby nation, rarely gets to play the likes of the All Blacks or England outside of World Cups. Wilkinson says it is "imperative" that changes, with Dallaglio suggesting they could even enter the major southern or northern hemisphere international competitions.

"They need to continue to introduce them to quality opposition," Wilkinson said in a message to rugby's powerbrokers.

The powerbrokers are listening. World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont told a news conference in the wake of South Africa's 32-12 win over England in the final that the sport's international governing body was working to get emerging teams more regular access and meaningful matches. He said negotiations were underway for Japan to play England and Ireland within 12 months.

And he praised local organizers and fans, saying "Japan 2019 will be remembered as probably the greatest Rugby World Cup."

"We've broken records at every level: attendances, fan zones, broadcast, digital and social media," he said. "The success of this tournament has been personified by the warmth and passion of the Japanese people."

Other issues facing Japan is the possibility of its head coach, New Zealander Jamie Joseph, leaving and stalwart players like captain Michael Leitch having potentially played in their last World Cup. A new generation of players needs to come through, without that carrot of a World Cup on home soil.

Hirose doesn't want the tournament's success to be wasted. He has been around Japan, teaching kids the national anthems of the competing teams. He has seen the Japanese people take the Brave Blossoms to their hearts — "they like their courage and discipline" — and enjoy mixing with foreigners before and after games, "drinking, chatting, singing."

They've witnessed visiting fans paint the Japanese flag — the "Hinomaru" — on their faces, and wear bandanas decked with the red-and-white colors of Japan.

World Rugby says its legacy programs have introduced 1.8 million people in Asia to the sport.

"One of the reasons we came to Asia," Beaumont says, "was to actually leave a legacy. What we have to do is carry on working so when you come back in two years' time, the people are talking about it."

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