By Jack Tarrant
KITAKYUSHU, Japan (Reuters) – Three school children, trudging away from baseball practice in the southern Japanese city of Kitakyushu, turn and cheer as a local bus drives past.
Emblazoned on the side of the red bus are the words ‘Pob Lwc Cymru’, meaning ‘Good Luck Wales’ in the Welsh language, along with the country’s flag and pictures of rugby players Alun Wyn Jones and Leigh Halfpenny.
Kitakyushu is not hosting any matches during the Rugby World Cup later this year but that has not stopped the city from embracing the tournament and establishing a unique relationship with one team in particular.
Wales, currently ranked second in the world, have chosen Kitakyushu as the team’s pre-tournament base from where head coach Warren Gatland will make the final preparations before his team’s opener against Georgia on Sept. 23.
With almost 10,000 kilometres separating Kitakyushu from Cardiff, the Welsh Rugby Union has sought to turn the city into a home-from-home for the players.
As well as seeking the best possible camp conditions, Wales wants to build a relationship with the city and a legacy that lasts long after the tournament ends.
In March, a team of Welsh coaches – including fitness coach Huw Bennett and former player Rhys Williams – took part in the third and final series of rugby workshops with young players, coaches and referees at the stadium in the city’s harbour.
Over three days, the coaches looked to spread the word about Welsh rugby and, in particular, change ideas about the sport.
“When you get talking to them about their preconceptions of rugby we are opening up their view about what rugby really is and we are seeing a lot more young girls getting involved,” said Williams, who heads up the Kitakyushu program.
“The first visit was a lot of people who are already engaged with rugby but we want new people. If rugby is going to thrive here then we need to attract more people into it.”
Kitakyushu is located on the northern-tip of the island of Kyushu, which will play host to 10 matches during the World Cup. The Welsh play two Pool D matches in Kyushu before a potential quarter-final in Oita.
A traditional hotbed for Japanese rugby, Kitakyushu was hurt to be left out of the World Cup, while neighbours Kumamoto, Fukuoka and Oita got to host games.
So the city has taken Wales to its heart, with Welsh flags flying outside government buildings, supportive bumper stickers on cars, daffodils on display and Welsh cake served at official functions.
It creates an atmosphere that the WRU hopes will make players feel right at home come September.
“Its been great. The welcome we have had has been fantastic, very friendly, very similar to what we have back home,” said Williams after a coaching session involving over 200 children.
“Their culture is totally different, which I think will be a great learning for many of the supporters who come over but also for our squad as well.
“Hopefully when they get here we will have turned the city red and they will get a great welcome. That is a great way to get the World Cup started for them.”
Bennett, who has played in three World Cups for Wales and is part of Gatland’s coaching staff, said the warm local support could help settle players’ concerns about adjusting to Japanese culture.
“Being involved in any World Cup is exciting and I think Japan is going to have that little bit extra because you are going into that different culture,” said Bennett.
“The guys will be excited for that but they will be some nerves too and when we turn up here … with the support of a really great city it will be outstanding for the guys.”
At a small sports bar in a quiet area of town, a group of hardcore rugby fans, many wearing Wales shirts, gather to watch a repeat of Japan’s famous victory over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup and chatter about this September’s competition.
With Welsh flags adorning the walls and children wearing daffodil headdresses, there is very little doubt who locals here will be supporting as their second team.
Local coach Oda Saburo is one of those drinking under the red-coloured lights of the bar.
“It is such a good opportunity for local children to experience the sport with the players from a rugby nation, so I am grateful to Welsh Rugby Union,” he said.
“I am Japanese so of course I will be supporting Japan but after that it will be Wales.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)