Japan's oldest rugby venue ready to welcome the World Cup
HIGASHIOSAKA, Japan (AP) — A town on the outskirts of Osaka is putting the finishing touches on its preparations to host matches at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the first time the sport's showcase event will be staged in Asia.
With a population just under 500,000, Higashiosaka is Japan's rugby heartland. There is a temple devoted to the sport where players can go to pray for success. Rugby-themed manholes line the streets. Everywhere are reminders that this is a place that takes its rugby seriously.
The centerpiece is Hanazono Stadium. Built in 1929, Hanazono is the oldest dedicated rugby venue in the country. Modeled after Twickenham Stadium, the English rugby HQ, it boasts a rugby museum and will be one of a dozen venues hosting World Cup games in Japan.
The stadium has been given a $7.3 million facelift and will host four pool matches, including Tonga's games against the United States and Argentina, Italy against Namibia and Georgia against Fiji.
With less than a year to go before the tournament kicks off, the people of Higashiosaka are eagerly preparing for their moment on the world stage.
At a tiny stand in the shadows of the 26,500-seat stadium, the 72-year-old Harumi Okuno serves the ubiquitous Osaka delicacy Takoyaki (Octopus filled Japanese snacks). She and her husband Hiroshi haverun the shop for more than 35 years, and it's adorned with rugby memorabilia and tales of visits from some of the sport's biggest teams including the New Zealand All Blacks.
"It's the first time the Rugby World Cup will be held in Asia, so I really want it to be a success," Okuno said. In a show of typical Japanese hospitality, Okuno is collecting paper hand fans that she will give out to visitors during the Rugby World Cup.
"When there is an international game here, I give the visitors fans," Okuno said. "They really appreciate them. Japanese people might think they are just fans, but I think they make great souvenirs."
Plenty of other Higashiosaka locals are looking forward to the World Cup, including some relative newcomers. Toetu'u Taufa, a native of Tonga, spent his entire 13-year career with the Hanazono-based Kintestu Liners.
Taufa is a star in Higashiosaka, shaking hands with fans, posing for photos and getting mobbed by local school kids on his way to the stadium where he now serves as an ambassador to the Lions.
Taufa is hoping Japanese fans will support Tonga as their second team. The 38-year-old Taufa came to Japan on a rugby scholarship at Nihon University in 2000 before joining Kintestu four years later.
He went on to earn 22 international caps for Japan, including one appearance in the 2011 World Cup.
"The stadium is now world class and it makes me proud," Taufa said. "The fans are very close to the action and it will be a great atmosphere."
Organizers see the tournament as a chance to tap into the vast potential of the Asian market and point to Higashiosaka as proof the sport can establish deep roots in the region.
The idea to build the stadium back in 1929 came from Prince Chichibu, who was traveling on a train to visit a shrine when he noticed the amount of vacant space along the line. He suggested to a railway company executive that a stadium for rugby, which was becoming popular at the time, might attract more passengers to the area.
The stadium's first international match was in 1932 when Japan hosted Canada. That was the first of 30.
From 1963, Hanazono began hosting the National High School Rugby Tournament, an event that has produced some of the country's top players including Daisuke Ohata, who broke the record for the most overall tries in test matches at Hanazono in 2006 with a hat trick for Japan against Georgia.
The new improvements include the installation of a state-of-the-art hybrid turf playing surface, concrete bench seating has been replaced by individual plastic stadium seating and a high definition mega-screen has been built into the north stand.
"With its long history dating back to 1929 and as the home of Japanese High School Rugby, Hanazono holds a special place in the hearts of all Japanese rugby fans," said Akira Shimazu, president of the 2019 Rugby World Cup organizing committee. "I am delighted to see just how fantastic the stadium looks after the extensive renovation."
The Sept. 20-Nov. 2 Rugby World Cup will include 48 matches played by 20 participating teams across 12 cities stretching from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the southwest.
It's the first time the event will be held outside of the traditional rugby strongholds, having started in 1987 with a Rugby World Cup held jointly by Australia and New Zealand. The tournament has also been hosted across Britain and Ireland, France and South Africa.
The sport has already attracted 900,000 new participants as part of World Rugby's ambitious Asia 1 Million legacy project.
"Inspiring interest in rugby across Asia was one of the core reasons for bringing the Rugby World Cup to Japan," World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said.
It has been estimated the tournament will add $2 billion into the Japanese economy, and 70 percent of tickets have already been sold.
The popularity of the sport has grown tremendously since Japan stunned two-time champion South Africa at the 2015 World Cup in England in what was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament.
About 1.8 million spectators are expected in 2019, and the TV broadcast will go to a record global audience.
Yoshihiro Sakata, a former player and coach who was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, says Japan is ready to host the world.
"I was privileged to call Hanazono my home ground for 10 years," Sakata said. "It's a stadium Japan can be proud to show the world."