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The Rugby World Cup has traditionally been shared among the sport’s top-ranked nations when it comes to hosts. However, in 2019, this is set to change with Japan playing host to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Hosting the World Cup will be huge for Japanese rugby. Still on a high from their 2015 World Cup heroics, the 2019 World Cup is set to change the world’s perception of lower-tier rugby nations.
Although not considered one of the sport’s largest teams, Japan has the fourth-largest population of rugby union players in the world. This is because the sport has been played there for over a century and is ingrained into Japanese culture.
The first recorded instance of a team being established and rugby being played in Japan was in 1866. However, It wasn’t until the 1920s that Japanese rugby really started to grow. This was because there were nearly 1500 rugby clubs and more than 60,000 registered players during this time. These numbers meant that Japan’s rugby resources were larger than those of Scotland, Wales and Ireland combined.
However, it would take until 1987 for Japan to become a full member of World Rugby. Coincidentally, this was just in time to compete in the 1987 inaugural Rugby World Cup.
Competing on the world rugby stage hasn’t always been easy for the Japanese team and their supporters. Prior to 2015, the Cherry Blossoms had only managed one victory from their 24 World Cup games.
However, this was to change. In the 2015 World Cup, Japan shocked the world when they beat South Africa 34-32. That match has proven to be a huge catalyst, instilling a momentum in Japanese rugby that continues to this day. The Cherry Blossoms’ victory is statistically the biggest shock in Rugby World Cup history.
The 2015 Rugby World Cup tournament generated over 15 million social media impressions in Japan, highlighting just how popular Japanese rugby was going to get. Statistics show that the live audience increase for the 2015 tournament across Asia was 221%.
That historic win over South Africa has changed the rugby landscape. With 20% of the nation’s population watching Japan beat Samoa later in the tournament, it was decided that a film should be made about the Cherry Blossoms’ win over the Springboks.
In this year’s tournament, Japan has beaten Ireland 19-12 in a thrilling match, one that could be considered the biggest upset of the tournament, with the Irish team having been ranked as 2nd in the world.
To take advantage of the growing popularity of and passion for Japanese rugby, Japan was given the right to compete in the expanded Super Rugby competition in 2016.
The Japanese franchise, the Sunwolves played against (arguably) the Southern Hemisphere’s best teams. From 45 games the Sunwolves picked up six wins.
While only 12 different nations have reached the knockout stages of a World Cup and only four different nations have actually won a World Cup, Japanese rugby has always been promising.
Statistics reveal that there are currently 125,000 rugby players and 3,631 official rugby clubs in Japan, highlighting how prominent the sport is.
Japan’s national team is ranked 11th in the world, giving their country something to be proud of. However, for Japan’s international rankings and game prowess to improve, something has to change. Currently, there is a significant gulf between tier-one nations like New Zealand and Australia and tier two or developing nations.
With limited matches between the two tiers, the lower-ranked teams have to consistently compete against the other lowly ranked teams. Making it hard for teams like Japan, who stunned the world during their 2015 World Cup campaign, to keep finding opponents worthy of their growing stance in world rugby.
Hosting Asia’s first Rugby World Cup is a great accomplishment for Japan and its people, as there is the symbolism of being accepted into the inner sanctum of the larger nations who have previously played host. There is also the belief amongst the people that Japan can go deep into this competition.
It is undoubtedly true that the fans will be ecstatic. During the 2015 World Cup, the Japanese audience grew by 59 million. Can you imagine the numbers in 2019? Hosting the World Cup is the Japanese people’s chance to show off their rugby prowess to the world, finally getting the opportunity to show just how steeped in tradition the game of union is in their history. As the host nation, it is also a chance to be taken seriously as competitors – a chance the Cherry Blossoms will relish.
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