Japan ready for Rugby World Cup despite some bumps along the way
The ninth staging of Rugby World Cup, and the sixth in the professional era, is the first to take the sport away from its traditional base and into a new frontier.
The road to Japan hasn’t always been easy, but the country is ready to go after the longest lead-time in history. Japan was chosen as 2019 host in July 2009 as World Rugby looked to the future of the game by exploring a new market.
Although Japan has a long history of playing rugby in localised enclaves, when it won the right to host Rugby World Cup 2019 the country could hardly be described as having a "rugby culture".
And 10 years on, after the failed Sunwolves experiment in Super Rugby, and an official document claiming there are "only" 100,000 registered rugby players in the country, Japan has not embraced the game in a way that rugby bosses hoped.
But even if Japan hasn’t become a rugby-playing - or participation - powerhouse, the most important outcome as far as World Rugby is concerned, guaranteed income, appears to be on track.
Initial estimates are that RWC 2019 will bring in roughly the same as RWC 2015 in England, which was a record earner for the global governing body.
World Rugby generated £330m (about R6.04bn) from RWC 2015 in England, and this time around the estimate is at £360m (about R6.59bn), according to chief executive Brett Gosper. But the operating costs of hosting the tournament in Japan will be much higher and therefore profit will be slightly down on four years ago.
It will still be a lucrative event for World Rugby but they can expect much higher revenue in France for RWC 2023. The traditional bases in European time zones are still the most profitable tournaments.
France vs Argentina – Tokyo Stadium – September 21. In a group containing England, the USA and Tonga the winner of this clash will go a long way to securing a knockout place. The loser will have to beat England to qualify.
Ireland vs Scotland – Yokohama – September 22. This match is a potential group decider. With the Boks and All Blacks playing at the same venue 24 hours earlier, where the winner will almost certainly go on to secure Pool B top spot, Ireland and Scotland will know who their potential quarterfinal opponent is.
Australia vs Wales – Tokyo Stadium – September 29.
This is a pool decider, which means a slightly easier quarterfinal for the winner.
Japan vs Scotland – Yokohama – October 13.
If it all goes to plan then both sides will go into this clash with one defeat each – a loss to Ireland. This will be the match to decide the Pool runner-up and who goes through to the quarterfinals.
Despite years of gushing press releases about what Japan would deliver, there have been issues in preparation, which led World Rugby to take the unusual step of publicly reprimanding the Japanese Organising Committee in 2015.
Initially the plan was for the final and other key matches to be played in a new state-of-the-art National Stadium in Tokyo. But that had to be scrapped when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe withdrew government funding for the stadium.
In the days leading up to Japan’s historic and unexpected win over the Springboks in Brighton at RWC 2015, World Rugby asked the Japan Organising Committee for new financial guarantees. Without a proposed 80,000-seater stadium that would host 12 of the 48 matches, it meant a bleaker financial outlook.
Compromises were made and Japan has by all accounts delivered and is ready to host a major international event.
Volunteers have been superb and each team has enjoyed vibrant local support, although how much of that is a cultural courtesy and how much is a genuine love of rugby, is unclear.
On the field
On the field, RWC 2019 promises to be the most unpredictable of all. There have only been four different winners of the eight previous tournaments. That could change in 2019.
For the first time ever, one of the sport's major powers do not enjoy home ground advantage at a World Cup while each team will also have to adjust to Japan’s unique culture.
The climate is also difficult with high humidity and potentially heavy rain likely to neutralise advantages some teams might hold over others.
Over the past four years, since the All Blacks cruised to the 2015 title, the gap between the top teams in the world appears to have narrowed. Two points or fewer have decided the last four clashes between the Springboks and the All Blacks.
The All Blacks have also lost to Ireland twice since 2015 and to Australia. They also lost to the British & Irish Lions, which featured many of England and Wales’ best.
The confidence Lions players gained from their titanic 2017 series has given those players a boost. They know the All Blacks are beatable.
Despite the fact that Wales and Ireland are realistic contenders, while France and Argentina are both dangerous floaters, there is an air of predictability about the pool phase.
The Springboks and All Blacks will both emerge from Pool B regardless of the outcome of their anticipated opener in Yokohama on Saturday. Namibia, Canada and Italy simply aren’t good enough to beat either of the traditional powers.
It’s difficult to see past Ireland and Scotland emerging from Pool A, although host nation Japan might have another upset in them.
Pool C is the most intriguing with England, France and Argentina vying for two qualifying places. England should come through as pool winners with the clash between France and Argentina on Saturday deciding the runners-up.
Wales and Australia are likely to emerge from Pool D, which also features Fiji, Georgia and Uruguay.