South Africa's wing Cheslin Kolbe (R) fights for the ball with New Zealand's centre Anton Lienert-Brown during the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between New Zealand and South Africa at the International Stadium Yokohama in Yokohama on September 21, 2019. Photo: AFP/Toshifumi Kitamura

If you are Asian – or you’d simply like to see rugby expand in the world’s most populous region – you should have been roaring for the “Brave Blossoms” when Japan goes head-to-head with Russia in the inaugural match of the Rugby World Cup in Tokyo on Friday night.

Rugby’s biggest competition has come to Asia for the first time, but whether the sport’s greatest global event will give the game a regional boost is another question.

Much depends on how Japan’s “Brave Blossoms” – the only Asian team in the tournament – fared.

If they leverage home-town advantage and deliver a strong showing, the game could soar nationally. And with Japan being Asia’s second-largest economy and something of a regional trendsetter, chances are, sporting mandarins across the region will pay close attention.

If they don’t perform well, don’t expect to see the Rugby World Cup back in Asia any time soon. Japan’s team made a great start by defeating Russia 30-10 in Friday night’s opening game.

Regardless of the game’s regional future, this tournament, which stretches from tonight until November 2 and features rugby’s top 20 teams, is expected to lure half a million overseas fans to Japan and deliver a $4 billion financial injection.

As such, it should provide a significant boost for the local economy and Japan’s international standing. With the tourney’s 12 venues spread across the country, it is expected to offer Japan’s food, beverage and hospitality sectors a stress test ahead of next year’s even bigger sporting event –  the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

How far can they go?

Rugby is dominated by European and southern hemisphere heavyweights, and the World Cup also features second-tier powers from the Pacific, plus up-and-coming teams from Europe and the Americas.

Japan’s players are physically small compared to the powerhouse physiques boasted by players in teams like New Zealand, South Africa, England and Russia.

The size of the Japanese players is a disadvantage in the scrums and rucks, as forwards battle to win possession of the ball. However, it offers an advantage in open play, where speed, agility and fast passing are the skills that can put points on the board.

New Zealander Jamie Joseph, the team’s coach, admitted in a press briefing that speed will be his side’s key advantage. “We are faster,” he said. “We spend a lot of time in training on speed.”

And of course, they will have that universal sporting asset – the “home-team advantage”.

Realistically: Can Team Japan progress in the tournament?

“I think they have a great chance,” Israel Dagg, a fullback who played for New Zealand’s world-beating All Blacks for seven years, told Asia Times. “They are trending in the right direction, they have knowledgeable coaches and home-town advantage is huge: They don’t have to leave friends and family.”

Japanese supporters root for both Japan and Russia at the Tokyo stadium prior to the opening match of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Tokyo on Sept. 20, 2019. Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun / AFP

But whether those positives can take them to the final in Yokohama is another matter.

“Winning it? Probably not. But to get into the Top 8? Yeah!” Dagg, one of three retired rugby stars who spoke to Asia Times ahead of today’s match, said. “That’d be awesome.”

That comment puts Dagg on the same page as Joseph, who has said his ambition for the Cup is to get the Blossoms into the final eight.

“They are an inspired bunch – very dedicated, very hard-working,” added Joel Stransky, a former international with the South African Springboks. “I’d hope they can win a couple of games.”

That looks plausible. Japan have played in the World Cup since the tournament was launched in 1987, and about half their squad is foreign-born. And the Blossoms have taken one very prominent scalp in elite-level competition.

In the last World Cup, held in England four years ago, Japan pulled off the “Shock of the Century” – astonishing both pundits and fans by toppling the legendary Springboks.

“After the South African win, nobody will take them lightly,” said Rod McCall, an ex-Wallaby who wore the gold Australian jersey for six years.

Moreover, the Blossoms should benefit from a relatively genteel draw in the competition’s opening round. “The form of the teams in the Japan pool is not that great,” McCall said, referring to Ireland, Russia, Samoa and Scotland.

Even so, the Australian was not upbeat on Team Japan pulling off a string of wins. “It might be a stretch,” he said.

That is particularly so given that the team which beat the Springboks in England is no more. When Joseph took over coaching duties, only six of the 2015 players were still on the squad, which suffers from a lack of international experience.

Eyes on these teams

Beyond the Blossoms, what teams are in with a chance?

Among up-and-comers, Dagg likes Georgia, which benefits from a large number of players who play in France’s highly-rated league: “They could be a real powerhouse,” the former All Black said. The USA is another. “They are pumping a lot of money into it, and they have a new league over there, and they are heading in the right direction,” he said.

And who will win the final on November 2 in Yokohama? Ireland are currently the top-ranked squad, but have an average record in World Cups; the favorites are New Zealand.

Dagg – admitting to some partisanship – put his money on the All Blacks. “But I also rate South Africa,” he said. “And I have got a strong feeling about England.”

England’s coach, Eddie Jones, has lived and coached in Japan, which will be to their advantage, Dagg said.

Still, nothing is certain. “Most Rugby World Cups have a great upset,” Stransky warned.

Right game, right place

Regardless of how well Japan plays on the field, the country is expected to play a winning role in organizing a successful event.

The opening ceremony – before the Japan-Russia match at Tokyo Stadium – will feature a display by the Japanese Self Defense Force’s acrobatics squadron. The All Blacks have already been serenaded with a haka by Japanese schoolchildren that made CNN, and the event’s lion-like mascots are nationally ubiquitous.

Ireland fullback Rob Kearney scores his team’s first try during a warm-up match against Wales in Dublin on September 7, 2019. Ireland are the world’s top-ranked team. Photo: AFP/ Paul Faith

“Japan is going to be a great host,” Dagg predicted. The New Zealander speaks with knowledge; after his All Black career, he lived in Japan for four years, playing for company team the Canon Eagles. “It’s nice and friendly, it’s clean, it’s very organized – and they love an event,” he said.

Japan is “an interesting country with plenty to offer,” McCall said. “I think it will do a wonderful job with thinks like access, venues and cultural highlights.”

“It is going to be unbelievably well organized,” enthused Stransky. “And Japanese people will support it.”

Despite the dominant popularity of baseball, sumo and football as spectator sports in Japan, there appears to be real local interest in rugby. According to Japanese media, 95% of tickets had been sold by Friday, and an open training session by Wales was watched by a massive crowd of 15,000.

TV viewer numbers are also expected to soar: 25 million Japanese watched the Blossoms take on Samoa in the 2015 World Cup.

Moreover, Japan, being in the Northeast Asian time zone, will not offer any advantages to the big teams from Europe and the southern hemisphere, who will all be making long journeys and suffering from similarly problematic time adjustments.

“People are saying it is quite a neutral location for the top teams,” said Stransky. “There is no home advantage.”

In terms of apres-rugby, Japan’s robust attitude toward drinking and its widespread tolerance of drunkeness should be a plus for watchers of what is customarily a very well lubricated game with a predominantly male fan base.

“Fans from New Zealand, Australia and England are terrible drinkers,” Dagg admitted. “In Japan, you can eat and drink on the streets and in public transport, so I just hope fans don’t take it too far – like myself!”

Indeed, local and international media have made much of the fact that Japanese bars and restaurants have been advised to stock extra beer to keep thirsty foreign fans in the party mood.

A virgin region

Prior to the World Cup coming to Japan, rugby has one major Asian event: The Hong Kong Rugby Sevens.

However, Dagg – who also played in the New Zealand Sevens team – warned that Sevens is a very different format from the 15-a-side games being played in the World Cup.

“Sevens is a different game, a different skillset,” he said – more about speed than power and tactics. “Sevens suits Asia and Pacific nations – it is grab the ball and run,” he said.

A major question is how well the organizers can promote the game while the tournament is staged.

“Kids need to give it a try – get their hands on a ball,” Dagg advised, noting that the game offers real benefits to youths. “It’s a team sport and it’s good for hand-eye coordination.”

Much will depend, inevitably, on the Blossom’s luck. “If the home team get through to the quarter finals, that would be a big impetus,” added McCall.

Japan boasts a semi-pro league, sponsored by companies, and this has proved lucrative for premium players like Dagg, who play in Japan at the end of their careers, or move into coaching.

“In Asia, Japan has embraced it,” said Stransky. “Look at how many top players have ended their career here.”

Still, there are downsides. As Japan’s league is semi-professional, its players work in the companies that sponsor the teams. Pundits say it needs to go full-on professional.

Moreover, its players suffer from irregular exposure to international competition. Japan’s team the Sunwolves were controversially dropped from the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby franchise this year in a decision that raised the eyebrows of many.

“Super Rugby was designed to increase the profile of the game in Asia, but the [Japanese]  Sunwolves were cut,” McCall said. “That was a tough call.”

Stransky also noted that the Sunwolves were “not really a Japanese side.” The team relied heavily on foreign imports.

But if the game in Japan has problems, Asian rugby has bigger ones.

World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said, according to AFP, that his organization had awarded the tournament to Japan in the hopes that it would be “a powerful game-changer for sporting and social change in Asia, the world’s most populous and youthful continent.”

That is a tall order. The Asia Rugby Championship wins little respect. Japan is overly dominant, having won 25 out of 50 of the championships, which were inaugurated in 1969.

Dagg advises a regional semi-pro league: “The more the players play, the better they get,” he said. “That would be a stepping stone into the global game,” added Stransky.

The sport’s governing body might be wise to put more emphasis on promoting the game in Asia.

“Rugby in Asia is all about opportunity. With the right focus, there is big potential,” McCall said. Countries like China, Japan and South Korea have made considerable investments into focused sports to boost their national brands at, for example, the Olympics.

“When [Asian nations] focus on something, they follow through,” McCall added. Asia would provide a tremendous revenue boost. “Asia is huge! You could maximize TV rights,” the Australian said. “If Asia can come in, it would be a big win.”

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