By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) – With 100 days to go until the start of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, organisers have turned one eye towards the legacy the tournament will leave in Japan and Asia as a whole.
When World Rugby made the decision 10 years ago to award the tournament to Japan – making them the first hosts outside of rugby’s traditional heartland – they did so with the intention of broadening the game in the world’s most populous continent.
At a ceremony in Tokyo on Wednesday to mark the 100 days to go countdown, World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper made legacy the cornerstone of his speech.
“As the first tournament in Asia, Japan was always going to be a step change for the sport of rugby,” said the Australian. “This tournament will probably cause more exciting change here and around the world than any other World Cup ever has.
“World Rugby awarded the hosting rights to Japan 10 years ago, recognising the clear and compelling opportunity to unlock rugby’s potential in Asia, the world’s most populous and youthful continent.”
As well as boosting participation and improving infrastructure in Japan, a key aim for World Rugby has been to use the tournament as a way into the elusive, and potentially lucrative, Asian market.
Research commissioned by the world governing body showed Asia had more fans (112 million) than any other continent, with 33 million fans of the sport in China and 25 million in India.
According to Gosper, 1.16 million youngsters have now been exposed to rugby in Asia through World Rugby’s Asia 1 Million project.
“The reason why the World Rugby council voted to come here was all about legacy… to drive participation in this part of the world, whether it be Japan or Asia,” Gosper told Reuters ahead of the 100 days to go ceremony.
“The Japan Rugby Union and Asia Rugby have been very active in exploiting the opportunity that is out there to do that.”
With Tokyo-based Super Rugby team Sunwolves being dropped from the competition from 2020 and the Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU) seemingly at crossroads following the resignation of honorary chairman Yoshiro Mori, Japanese rugby faces an uncertain future.
Kyodo News has reported that Mori, a former Japan Prime Minister, stepped down because of the JRFU’s lack of vision for the sport after the World Cup.
Alan Gilpin, the World Cup’s tournament director, on Wednesday said that while he understood Mori’s frustrations, World Rugby remained confident in Japan’s future.
Much of this optimism stems from Japan’s role in the governing body’s proposed Nations Championship.
World Rugby has proposed an elite international tournament – to start in 2022 – that includes the existing Six Nations teams and an expanded Rugby Championship.
Gosper and Gilpin both stressed the importance of incorporating Japan in the top tier of any such tournament.
“If Japan was sitting at the top table, then that would be the best possible legacy for us for the national team and for the fans going forward,” said Gosper.
World Rugby has yet to finalise the plans and any decision would have to be approved by the game’s major powerbrokers, including SANZAAR, the southern hemisphere’s governing body.
“The Nations Championship is a big opportunity for them because it means Japan will be playing the best teams in the world week in and week out,” stressed Gilpin.
In short-term the outlook is rosy.
With 100 days to go, World Rugby said that 80% of all tickets for Japan 2019 have been sold and 40 of the 48 games are already a sell-out.
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)