COMMENT

The next two weeks could go a long way to helping the All Blacks in chasing a third successive World Cup.

They could lose both of the tests they will play in Japan and still have jumped ahead of most teams in their World Cup preparation.

That's because the World Cup next year will be like no other. Rugby has gone off the beaten track and while Japan is hardly a well-kept secret or an untouched frontier, it is another world compared with the homes for all previous tournaments.

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Japan is gloriously different to rugby's traditional, bed-rock nations. It is a mix of enormous, ultra-modern conurbations and stunningly traditional, beautiful rural hinterlands.

It is a country of fast trains, punctuality, good manners, political conservatism, culinary wonders, relentless helpfulness and a quite deep fear and distrust of anyone with tattoos.

Tattoos are in fact one of the biggest worries for the organisers of the 2019 World Cup.

Most previous hosts have worried about their training venues, stadiums and infrastructure.

But Japan has all that nailed. It has the best rail network in the world. It has the accommodation and its stadiums, despite Japan's technological and engineering pedigree, are not state-of-the-art, but they are easily big enough and modern enough for everyone to be content.

It has all the hard bits covered and so maybe that it is why it can fret about the seemingly small stuff.

But it's not small from a Japanese perspective. They don't just want to deliver on tournament logistics.

They want to sell their country to a mass market and they want that market to like what they see.

Tourism is an area the Japanese Government has targeted for potential growth to trigger an economy that is huge but stagnant.

Having hundreds of thousands of foreign rugby fans in situ is as good a chance as any to sell what Japan has to offer to a global audience.

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Hence the concern there could be some friction and tension around this vexed business of body art.

In Japan, tattoos are synonymous with the Yakuza gang - a mark of organised crime, which is why traditional onsen hot spring bathing houses nationwide have signs up refusing entry to those who are inked.

Many restaurants have the same signs and the first problem for the organisers is that more than half the players coming, particularly those from the Pacific, are heavily tattooed.

Rugby is a growing sport in Japan and it has almost two-thirds as many registered players as New Zealand.

But in a country of almost 125 million people, rugby is barely visible.

On the Saturday before the Bledisloe Cup clash this week, trains heading south from Yokohama were full of young baseball players and footballers on their way to play.

The only presence rugby had, strangely, was a giant poster at Odawara Station - the gateway for tourists to explore the Hakone region where Mount Fuji can be seen - wishing the Wallabies good luck.

The World Cup is essentially selling rugby to an uninitiated market and the tattoos won't make life easy.

Some Japanese will find it hard to embrace a sport whose players they are quite fearful of.

But the players are not the real worry. It's the fans. This is where tension could become intense and Japanese organisers fear they could fail to provide the holistic experience World Rugby wants them to deliver.

Japan isn't culturally set-up to deliver the beer, chips and curry experience defining earlier tournaments.

With the Rugby World Cup being held in Japan next year and the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, there has been a westernisation of sorts.

The Tokyo metro system has English signs and across the rail network there are announcements in English as well as Japanese.

Dalton Papalii and Patrick Tuipulotu test out the sushi in a Tokyo restaurant. Photo / Getty Images
Dalton Papalii and Patrick Tuipulotu test out the sushi in a Tokyo restaurant. Photo / Getty Images

Some restaurants in Yokohama proudly declare they have English menus and, maybe not surprisingly given their success everywhere else on the planet, there are an increasing number of Irish-themed bars popping up in major Japanese cities.

But Japan essentially remains loyal to its dignified roots and the drinking to excess culture and making a big show of it is anathema to its people. The western world has only crept in so far.

It is not a land of cavernous bars where the alcohol flow is punctuated by a little deep-fried sustenance.

It is a land of intimate, quiet eateries and Tokyo, where the All Blacks are destined to be for much of the tournament, has more Michelin stars than any other city in the world.

And mostly this is where the fascination lies - in how the traditional rugby-following masses will take to Japan. Just as interesting will be how the Japanese take to the traditional rugby-following masses.

It would seem that one of these groups has more to learn from the other and while the Japanese are worried about how they will be judged against previous events, the 2019 tournament may be one that recalibrates future World Cups into thinking beyond pouring rights and fan zones.

Next year's World Cup may provide a cultural awakening for rugby followers and change expectations entirely about what a holistic rugby experience should entail.

But while Japan may be perfect for intrepid travellers, it might not be so good for high-performance athletes.

Professional rugby players are creatures of routine and habit. They perform outside their comfort zone but to be able to do so, they have to prepare within it.

And this is why the All Blacks having consecutive tests in Japan is going to be critical.

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It is time to familiarise themselves - to some degree at least - with the Japanese way of life and to learn how they can find ways to adapt their typical preparation routines.

The All Blacks will be trialing two of their World Cup bases on this current trip to Japan.

They will stay and train at the same venue ahead of playing South Africa in their opening game next year at the same stadium they will play the Wallabies this weekend.

They will also be playing another pool game in Tokyo - at the same stadium they will be playing Japan on November 3.

Some of the next two weeks is simply gaining experience of the actual hotels, training grounds and venues.

But of more value is getting the New Zealand players used to being in Japan.

It is getting them used to the fact that wherever they go - more so than normal - they will be the subject of intense fan engagement.

The All Blacks will be photographed to death while they are here. Never mind whether they are recognised as All Blacks - the size of them will be enough to have crowds flocking with their cameras.

They will have fans approach them wherever they go and they will have to accept being almost zoo-exhibit fascinating to their hosts.

They will have to accept it will be hard for them to escape the bubble of the training environment as they are encouraged to do.

In the usual cities in which they play - even overseas - they have a degree of comfort about trying to be normal run-of-the-mill blokes and heading out for coffee or food.

But in Japan, the challenge - with the language barrier - will be that bit harder. It will be different and what most coaches are worried about is that their players will become homesick in Japan.

Certainly the All Blacks are wary about how their players will assimilate and how they will cope with being in Japan for close to eight weeks as they will need to be if they are to successfully defend their title.

This forthcoming Bledisloe Cup test is New Zealand's to host and the fact they opted to play it in Yokohama is evidence of how much the All Blacks want exposure to Japan.

NZR will still receive good revenue from playing the test in Yokohama, but not as much as they would have had they played the game in New Zealand.

They will also build significant goodwill and recognition with the locals for taking the game here and despite there being some visible support for the Wallabies in Odawara, there will most likely be considerably more neutral backing for the All Blacks.

All of this will matter in 10 months when the All Blacks return and how they play in the next two weeks is only part of their World Cup preparation.

The other part is trying to make sense of a country that is magically different to New Zealand.