Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby: Cup crafted in Japan

Japan's Ryan Nicholas seeks to evade Canada's Scott Franklin in a 2011 Rugby World Cup clash at McLean Park. Photo / Richard Robinson
Japan's Ryan Nicholas seeks to evade Canada's Scott Franklin in a 2011 Rugby World Cup clash at McLean Park. Photo / Richard Robinson

Already recognised as a world leader in car production, high speed trains, bizarre comic books and ornate tea ceremonies, Japan hopes to set a new standard in sports events with the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Although rugby is far from a major sport in the Asian nation, organisers are confident that the event will be the most successful in the history of the tournament. They aim to attract over 300,000 visitors - the most in tournament history - and dwarf the 2011 edition which drew 130,000 overseas fans to New Zealand.

They have already committed to the construction of a new $1.3 billion stadium in Tokyo which will host the opening game, both semifinals and the final as well as several other important matches.

Significantly, last Sunday's general election gave the upcoming tournament a substantial indirect boost. The conservative Liberal Democrats were returned to power in a landslide win, ousting the Democratic Party of Japan. The Democratic Party had been elected in August 2009, one month after the World Cup rights were granted, and had been cautious in their backing of the tournament.

It took 18 months for organisers to secure the necessary government guarantee (financial underwriting of the tournament) that New Zealand had at the time of their successful bid in 2001. The Japanese government had also been slow to grant various tax concessions, seen as vital for the event.

The road should now be a lot smoother. The Liberal Democrats are the party of former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, president of the JRFU since 2005, and are perceived to have a pro-rugby stance.

The outcome of Tokyo's 2020 Olympic bid will also influence the World Cup. They are currently front runners alongside Istanbul and if their name is read out in September next year, it will help to fast-track and rubber-stamp projects such as the national stadium, which will then have a twin purpose.

"If we have the Olympics next year, there is no problem with the funding [approval]," says JRFU chairman Tatsuzo Yabe. "If we don't have the Olympics maybe there will be some changes to the budget."

Despite their status as a rugby minnow, Japan brings some impressive numbers to the table. With more than 122,000 registered players, they have almost as many participants as New Zealand (137,835) and significantly more than Australia, Argentina, Wales and Scotland. They have a long-established and prestigious competition among over 500 institutions at university level and big games between traditional rivals can draw crowds of up to 40,000.

Japan's top tier professional competition, the Top League, is in its 10th season and despite some teething problems, increases in popularity and quality with every year.

Many of the top executives at large Japanese companies played rugby at university level and are big supporters of company teams. The current president of the Japan Business Bureau, which represents the top 400 companies in the world's third largest economy, is the CEO of Canon and a prominent rugby supporter.

However, there are challenges aplenty. On the field, the national team has a lot of ground to cover to be a credible host. Off the field, rugby is far from a mainstream sport and has been left in football's wake over the last two decades.

"This World Cup has a lot of challenges but if we succeed there are a lot of answers," says Koji Tokumasu, the head of the 2019 World Cup organising committee. "We have big goals. We hope that by 2019 everyone on the street out there is talking about the Rugby World Cup, as obviously that doesn't happen at the moment."

If Martin Snedden was well qualified to be the man behind the New Zealand tournament, his Japanese equivalent has an equally impressive back story. Tokumasu started his working life as a sports journalist and one of his early assignments was a rugby test between Japan and Wales in Osaka in 1975. The Welsh, boasting star names Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and Phil Bennett, enjoyed a comprehensive 56-12 victory and Tokumasu was entranced by the quality of their play.

"I thought they were amazing," recalls Tokumasu. "They were not big men but were so skilful and fast. It was a perfect model for Japanese rugby and I decided to go to Wales to learn from them."

He spent almost two years at the Cardiff College of Education, working as a part-time cleaner to pay the bills and learning as much as he could about the art of rugby. Upon his return, he coached a modest high school team to the national championship, sealing a passion for the sport that continues to this day.

SEVEN YEARS out, Tokumasu has a long list of tasks but an immediate priority is selling the tournament to potential host cities across Japan.

"We will have to sell some stories - mostly using New Zealand's case - saying this is what happened there," says Tokumasu. "There is interest but still a knowledge gap."

This is illustrated by his business card; the English side has the usual name and contact details but the reverse in Japanese has a pocket-sized essay giving history and facts about the tournament.

In terms of public interest he aims to use the current rugby community - players, coaches and fans - as ambassadors to widen the interest in the sport and the event. Tokumasu and the JRFU also want to use Tag rugby to spread the gospel, aiming to have it played at half of Japan's 22,000 primary schools by 2015 and across the board by 2019.

"We hope that by the time the World Cup comes everybody will have touched the oval ball," says Tokumasu. "This is a strong tool as it can also help parents and relatives relate to the sport".

Another major plank of 2019 is the involvement of the wider region of Asia. Japan are the main drivers of the Asian Scrum project, to increase interest and participation in the 28 member unions across the continent.

Although wary of comparisons, Tokumasu takes heart from football's experience after the 2002 Fifa World Cup: "I knew a lot of people who weren't great football fans but they went along to be part of it. I'm confident we can create the right atmosphere and get fans to the stadium. We know we need to attract the non-rugby community; if only rugby fans come, we won't fill the stadiums."

'THERE ARE are some challenges coming," says veteran Japan rugby journalist Rich Freeman. "A litmus test will be the Welsh visit next year. Those games [in Tokyo and Osaka] need to attract big crowds to show that everything is on track."

An overriding factor is the status of the national team. Japan has made progress in recent years but still lacks strong international competition between World Cups.

"There needs to be more of a pathway for tier two teams like Japan," says former Japan coach Sir John Kirwan. "The winner of the Pacific Nations Cup [Japan in 2011, Samoa in 2010 and 2012] needs to play against the fourth-placed team in the Rugby Championship. Otherwise the money just swirls around the top eight countries."

The IRB seem to have heeded the message. Apart from the Welsh visit next year, tours by Scotland (2016), Ireland (2017) and Italy (2018) are also on the agenda.

"There is a lot of potential here," says former Canterbury representative Luke Thompson, who has represented his adopted nation at the last two World Cups. "It's a big work-on for everyone involved but you hope rugby can do something similar to what football managed."

"We need to continually improve from now," says Yabe. "If our level is going down towards 2019, it would be miserable and it would be very difficult to have a successful World Cup. The 2015 event is very important. Getting up to the top 10 will be difficult but there is a good chance with the US, Samoa and Scotland in our pool."Michael Burgess travelled to Japan with the assistance of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

- Herald on Sunday

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a5 at 31 Jul 2014 00:22:43 Processing Time: 904ms