By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) - The great and the good of Japanese rugby joined the chairman of the sport's global governing body, Bill Beaumont, to commemorate the one year countdown until the 2019 Rugby World Cup kicks off at an event in the capital on Thursday.
Hosts Japan take on Russia at Tokyo Stadium on Sept. 20 next year in the opening match of a 20-team event being billed by World Rugby as a tournament for the whole of Asia
When World Rugby selected Japan to be the first country outside of the sport's traditional heartland to host their showpiece event, it was a signal of intent that the sport wanted to grow across the continent..
In his speech on Thursday, former England captain Beaumont stressed the importance to the entire region of next year's tournament.
"The decision to award the ninth Rugby World Cup to Asia was made because in World Rugby we believed the opportunity would be great in Japan and we also believed in Japan," the former chairman of the English Rugby Football Union said.
"We knew the event could be a force for sporting change, to ignite and grow rugby across this most populous and youthful continent.
"It has to be (a competition) for the continent of Asia," reiterated Beaumont to reporters after the ceremony, which saw World Rugby vice-chairman and Argentine great Agustin Pichot 'kick off' the countdown to next September.
"Whilst Japan is the delivery vehicle, no doubt it will encourage and enthuse more people to get involved in the game and that is what we want," Beaumont added.
Tadashi Okamura, the president of Japan's Rugby Football Union, was also keen to stress the importance of representing the whole of Asia through the tournament.
"It was nine years ago that Japan was appointed the venue of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. It was decided back then for a World Cup tournament to be held in a non-traditional rugby country in order to spread rugby in Asia," Okamura said.
"Therefore, it is our mission as the hosts to help (Asian) teams become stronger but also to propagate the spirit of rugby throughout Asia."
Although both World Rugby and local organisers remain confident of hosting a successful tournament, there is one major unknown that has the potential to disrupt even the best laid plans.
Japan, which can experience up to 2,000 earthquakes a year, is also susceptible to typhoons during September.
The biggest storm in 25 years, Typhoon Jebi, caused havoc earlier this month in Kobe and Osaka, two World Cup venues, whilst a 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck the northern island of Hokkaido on Sept. 6, killing more than 40 people.
If similar events were to occur 12 months from now, all plans for the World Cup could be in tatters.
Beaumont agreed it was a concern heading into the final year of planning but pointed out that the World Cup had dealt with similar issues before.
"It is not uncommon for the Rugby World Cup to face natural disasters," he said.
"In New Zealand in 2011, we had the dreadful earthquake in Christchurch, which resulted in no matches at all being played in that city," added Beaumont, referring to the sequence of earthquakes which left 185 people dead seven years ago.
"That was one of the major venues for us so we had to adapt around that. I think what it is about is having the flexibility to move things quickly."
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by John O'Brien)