1. Why Japan?
To get more Asian youngsters playing. The mission for World Rugby, which oversees the sport and the tournament, is to expand the game globally, and Asia is the world’s most populous and youthful continent. Previous World Cups were staged in rugby hotbeds such as England, Australia and South Africa. According to the ruling body’s chief executive Brett Gosper, awarding the World Cup to Japan could be a “powerful game-changer for sporting and social change in Asia.” During the event, officials will organize rugby introduction days for children. Japan was also the first Asian nation to host a FIFA World Cup, along with South Korea, in 2002.
2. How big is rugby in Japan?
Bigger than you’d think. Not as popular as baseball or soccer, but there were 123,000 rugby players in Japan as of 2016, making it the largest rugby-playing population in Asia. It trails by some distance the major rugby nations such as England, with 2.1 million players, and Australia, with 670,000 players. Nonetheless, Japan has made its presence known, qualifying for every World Cup since the tournament started in 1987 and winning three of its four games at the most recent event in 2015. That included what many regard as the biggest upset in Rugby World Cup history, when the Brave Blossoms defeated two-time world champion South Africa. (They’re even making a movie -- “The Brighton Miracle” -- about it.) Japan also reached the semifinals of the 2016 Summer Olympics men’s rugby (a seven-a-side version of the sport instead of the regular 15-a-side), losing the bronze-medal match to South Africa.
3. When did Japan catch the rugby bug?
Rugby has been in Japan since at least 1866, when the Yokohama Football Club was founded. Games between British service personnel were played in Yokohama, as was a match in 1874 involving British sailors, according to Asia Rugby. Yokohama, which borders Tokyo, will host this year’s final in the same stadium where Ronaldo scored twice to help Brazil win the 2002 FIFA World Cup final. Rugby has long been popular at college and high-school level in Japan. Hanazono Rugby Stadium was built in 1929 as the country’s first dedicated rugby stadium and has hosted an annual high school tournament since 1963. The men’s national team is ranked 11th in the world, while the women’s team, known as Sakura Fifteen, is ranked 16th.
4. Do organizers foresee problems?
They, and many fans, worry that host cities will run out of booze. Rugby fans have a reputation for enjoying beer, and an estimated 400,000 overseas fans will descend on Japan. World Cup organizers noted that during the 2015 event in England and Wales, fans drank six times more beer than during soccer games held at the same venues. Oita and Sapporo -- home to a famous brewery -- are expecting a particularly large influx; Oita will stage five matches and Sapporo will host an England and an Australia game. Another issue: Players have been asked to cover up their many tattoos, which in Japan are associated with crime syndicates known as the yakuza. Locals avoid tattoos or keep them covered up in public. Hot spring onsens and resort hotels often ban people with visible tattoos from using their facilities. One city has produced a “Tattoo OK” map to direct players and fans to onsens that will welcome them.
5. What’s in it for Japan?
For an economy so huge, hosting the World Cup may not move the needle significantly, but it will certainly help promote the country as a tourist destination both during the tournament and beyond. According to a study conducted for the local organizing committee, the economy could get a $4 billion boost. The World Cup will open a big 12 months for Japan in terms of international exposure: Tokyo is hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics.
6. Who will win the World Cup?
New Zealand’s All Blacks, champions of the past two tournaments and a record three in total, typically start the World Cup as the favorites -- and this time’s no different. Yet recent results have highlighted how there’s not much between the half-dozen leading teams. The All Blacks surrendered their top world ranking for the first time in a decade after an emphatic loss to Australia, with Wales taking over as No. 1. South Africa, England and Ireland are also in the running. Japan’s odds were as low as 250-to-1 as of late August, but the hosts’ chances of reaching the quarterfinals for the first time have narrowed to 3-to-1.
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