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Japan's Rugby World Cup promises to be 'subarashī'

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20th September, 2019
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Subarashī / すばらしい. Adjective. ‘Wonderful; splendid; magnificent; fantastic’.

From the first shots of the opening ceremony, it was clear this is going to be a fantastic Rugby World Cup.

A red rugby ball exploded into lights scattering across the world to represent the 20 teams in the tournament.

Then more lights exploded into 15 shards of colour representing the number of positions on the rugby field.

The history of rugby in Japan was captured with images and dates flashed across a translucent Mount Fuji.

350 children representing each of the World Cup teams yelled and waved as their team was announced, with the crowd roaring with special intensity when Japan was announced as the host nation.

The finale of the elegant ceremony which was so replete with Japanese sensibility played tribute to rugby as a world game with a superb singing of the anthem ‘The World In Union’ by the Tokyo Children’s Chorus.

The climax came with Richie McCaw, in his capacity as the captain of the winning side in the 2015 World Cup tournament, made his way across the field carrying the Webb Ellis trophy like a knight of old bearing the Holy Grail before setting it on a plinth.

And then it was game on with Japan playing Russia.

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The match started sensationally with the Russian Bears scoring the fastest try in an opening World Cup match.

The early mistake by the Brave Blossoms, together with further mistakes under the high ball and handling errors under pressure, along with the doggedness in the tackle by the Bears, suggested that the predicted walkover victory by the home side was not going to plan.

Tim Horan was predicting before the match that there would be a major upset in the tournament. Was this match going to produce this upset?

The Japanese Brave Blossoms struck back after some continual pressure on the Bears to score, finally, an ensemble try by Kotaro Matushima that was not converted.

Then on half-time the Brave Blossoms put on a series of clever switches before releasing the winger Matushima to score his second try which was converted to give the home side a 12-7 lead.

In the second half the floodgates began to open. An early penalty and then a converted try pushed the lead for the Brave Blossoms to 20-7.

A penalty converted by the Bears fly half stopped the scoring momentum from the Brave Blossoms and created a 20-10 scoreline.

Then a Brave Blossom penalty took the scoreline to 23-10 with 15 minutes to play.

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A third try to the brilliant Matushima and the conversion took the score to floodgates territory, 30-10. And that was the scoreline when the match finished.

A final comment, the game was brilliantly refereed by Nigel Owens who gave only three penalties in the first half.

Kotaro Matsushima

Japan wing Kotaro Matsushima (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

A couple of days before the opening of the 2019 World Cup tournament, World Rugby sent out to thousands of sports journalists around the world an enthusiastic statement headed: ‘Rugby World Cup inspires 1.8 participants in Asia.’

The World Rugby slogan for the tournament is ‘Impact Beyond’ and the statistics set out in the statement justify this bold prediction:

112 million rugby fans in Asia (more than any other continent)
1.8 million new participants in Asia since 2016
1.07 million participants in Japan
22 Asian unions
43.1% of new Asian participants are girls/women
769,000 Japanese schoolchildren experienced tag in 6.616 elementary schools with 10,622 tag teachers trained

‘The World Rugby Council awarded the Rugby World Cup to Japan,’ the statement noted, ‘because we believed that it could be a powerful game-changer for sporting and cultural change in Asia, the world’s most populous and youthful continent and the success of the impact of the Beyond Impact programme is a very important step on the journey.’

Journalists like myself spend a lot of time deploring the inane and sometimes self-interested decision-making of rugby bureaucrats.

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It is a welcome relief praise World Rugby for selecting Japan to host the ninth World Cup tournament, and for ensuring that the benefits flowing from this decision will energise rugby in Japan and throughout Asia.

There have been four World Cup tournaments for men in Europe (England twice, France, Wales), two tournaments in New Zealand and one each in South Africa and Australia.

This means that the great geographical and rugby-playing entities of Europe, Africa, Australasia/Pacific have had their dues paid for their massive roles in the cultivation and spread world-wide of the rugby game.

But by raising the status of Japan – and with it rugby in Asia – to that of a host of a World Cup, World Rugby has set in motion a breakout for the rugby game from its comfortable and traditional perspectives and horizons.

It is an overlooked incident in the history of rugby that in 1924 its then ruling body, the IRFB, set up an Imperial Conference to find a way to ensure that France, with its rugby culture of sometimes lethal violence and professionalism, was removed from the game on the grounds that rugby should be an English-speaking game.

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The motion failed because the South African delegates pointed out that Afrikaans and not English was the language of choice of a majority of its players.

Springboks scrumhalf Faf de Klerk

Springboks scrumhalf Faf de Klerk. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

By giving hosting rights for the jewel in the crown, the World Cup tournament, to Japan, World Rugby has ensured that the first word in its title has the same strength and resonance as the second word.

Stephen Jones, a veteran rugby writer of some influence, has suggested that a Japanese World Cup should put an end to ‘the old-guard atmosphere of feasting and wining and dining and whining.’

For once, I agree with him.

He went on to point out that Ireland complained when its bid for the 2023 World Cup was awarded to France, rather than to it as one of the so-called Home Unions.

‘Their bid,’ Jones insisted, ‘appeared well-short of all the others in key areas. Merit, proper procedure, financial success, democracy and modernity were nothing to the Irish compared to their crude and threatening demands for the matey, old club to keep it matey.’

As someone who has frequently criticised this good old boys network, that has its power base centred within the so-called Home Unions (a giveaway title if ever there was one), I must applaud this attack by Jones.

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The Americas should be the next continent to host a Rugby World Cup tournament, preferably in 2027 following the 2023 tournament in France.

California on the west coast of the USA would be, in my opinion, the preferable location for the tournament.

There is a long history of rugby in California, with the Wallabies and the All Blacks playing Tests there before the First World War.

University rugby in the United States and particularly in California has been strong. These universities have the ground facilities for excellent venues for the tournament matches. And the organisational muscle to run an event like a World Cup tournament.

USA Rugby captain Blaine Scully

USA Rugby captain Blaine Scully. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

It should be remembered, too, that Stanford University sides, playing as the United States, won the last two 15-a-side Olympic tournaments, in 1920 and 1924.

Getting back to Japan, the World Rugby’s decision to give the World Cup to Japanese Rugby Union, endorsed by last night’s fantastic opening ceremony and opening match of the tournament, is a tribute to the organisational muscle of Japanese rugby.

Japan’s geography, too, has meant that inclusion in the Super Rugby tournament and one-off Tests with the Wallabies and All Blacks has raised the standard of the game, especially at the international level, and its administration to a virtual tier one level.

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While these ventures are relatively recent, the history of the rugby game in Japan goes back to the 19 century.

The first rugby club founded in Japan was the Yokohama Foot Ball Club in 1866, the year when it started playing the new rugby football game.

The International Stadium at Yokohama, interestingly, is the venue for the crucial pool match between South Africa and New Zealand.

1866 was two years after the first rugby football match in Australia was played at Sydney University.

It was also four years before the first rugby match in New Zealand was played in Nelson.

Georgina Robinson, in Friday’s Sydney Morning Herald, in an article titled ‘Japan rugby’s untold story 150 years in the making,’ tells in some fascinating detail rugby’s origins in Japan.

Robinson reports that Harry Rawson, later Governor of NSW in 1908, witnessed the first rugby match in Yokohama. He recalled ‘a remarkable feature of which was the fact that half the players were playing football and half playing cricket.’

In 1899 students at Keio University were introduced to rugby by their English teachers, Edward Bramwell Clarke and Ginnosuke Tanaka, both graduates of Cambridge University.

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As Wikipedia reports, ‘from Keio, Japanese rugby swept to other universities of Japan, and to this day, the private universities remain a stronghold of the Japanese game.’

The Keio and Waseda match, for instance, has been played by the two prominent universities universities since 1924, a Japanese equivalent of the Oxford-Cambridge annual rugby match.

In 1934 an Australian Universities side was defeated by Keio and Wasada universities in front of large crowds.

After the War, sides from Australian and New Zealand universities made tours of Japan in the tradition established by those pioneers of 1934.

Robinson reports that ‘almost 120 years later rugby is well and truly entrenched in Japanese in culture. It is a distant third behind baseball and football but the country’s university competition attracts crowds of close to 30,000 people.’

Japan’s first rugby Test was played against a Canadian side in 1932, in Tokyo, with the home side winning 32-5.

The Canadians were part of a trade delegation. This early link between commerce and rugby in Japan was to become formalised in the present franchise structure of leading teams being sponsored by the leading companies.

Adam Ashley-Cooper was in a Wallabies side, at his first World Cup tournament in 2007, that defeated Japan 91-3.

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And earlier in the 1995 World Cup tournament, a second-string All Blacks side defeated Japan 145-17.

But at the last World Cup in 2015, Japan, coached by Eddie Jones himself part-Japanese, created the greatest upset in World Cup history by defeating the Springboks 34-32, with a try scored on time.

Japan’s Brave Blossoms have yet to make a quarter-final at a World Cup tournament, even though they won two matches in their pool in 2015.

The ambition of the side coached by New Zealand and Japan representative Jamie Joseph is to break the quarter-final hoodoo in this World Cup.

Will this be the break-through tournament for the Brave Blossoms?

Whatever, we know already that this World Cup tournament is going to be the greatest sporting show on earth.

Fantasukka!