Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup: A Summary

A unique and action-packed Japanese edition

World Rugby, formerly the International Rugby Board (IRB), wished to break new ground in organizing the first Rugby World Cup in Asia. This wish for innovation has been fulfilled, somehow in ways the organizers haven’t imagined. The original scenario of the 2019 Rugby World Cup will make it nevertheless memorable.

A growing interest in rugby

Japan is the first Asian country to organize a Rugby World Cup. Until 2009, when Japan Rugby World Cup organization was announced, this competition exclusively took place in Europe, South Africa or Oceania. At the time, this decision was received with skepticism as the archipelago was not renowned for rugby skills. Moreover, the national team, the Brave Blossoms, were not really impressive and ranked quite low in the IRB.

True to their reputation of diligent workers, the Japanese started to refurbish the twelve stadiums selected to host the matches. Kamaishi stadium, located on Sanriku coast, in northern Japan, was even built specially for the World Cup and to commemorate the 3.11 earthquake.

Japanese people’s interest in rugby showed for the first time in 2018, at the beginning of ticket’s sale. The sales were good and even better than expected. On one hand, Western supporters showed great interest in Japan and motivation to travel there. On the other hand, Japanese people gave a good response in purchasing tickets in a number that surprised the organization committee. It seems that, despite the little number of rugby license holders in Japan (126,000), there is a Japanese audience for rugby!

The Official Mascots "Ren-G" have been working for the marketing promotion and the sale of merchandising. However, Tokyo’s streets have been decorated to advertise the RWC only during summer 2019. As a matter of fact, Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are already the main focus of medias and advertisement in Japan.

Japan embarrassed by the supporters’ behavior?

As soon as the first pool matches occurred on September 20th, Japan switched to "rugby mode". The country then discovered a new kind of tourism, related to sport: visitors come primarily to follow their favorite teams, not for the country. Therefore, the organization had to teach or remind supporters Japan’s basic behavior rules, even though most of the participants remained in the supporters’ circles.

No later than 24h after the beginning of the competition, the first supporters’ fauxpas happened: the so-called "paquito gate" has been spread by social networks, and quickly relayed by the international press. A dozen of French drunk supporters celebrated the French team’s first victory in performing a "Paquito", a human conveyor belt celebration, in Tokyo subway. At first people were amused, but a video that became viral (see below) showed acts of disrespect, such as putting one’s feet on the seats. Westerners might think there was nothing so shocking, but Japanese people and foreign residents in Japan were really distressed by those uneducated foreigners. That’s why the saying goes "when in Rome, do as the Romans do".

A debate was then prompted about how to deal with the supporter’s excesses, in a society where harmony and discretion are a prime concern. What these incidents have in common is they all took place in the public transportations. It is usually a quiet place, as passengers are commuting to work and tend to behave smoothly. Subway and train don’t seem to be the ideal places for extravagant cultural exchanges in Japan. French supporters were not the only ones to attract attention: the Australians performed a human pyramid, the English sang loudly on the Toho Line in Sapporo, and a Uruguayan player performed a "tackle" on a restaurant employee.

However, compared to soccer’s supporters, it must be said that rugby supporters tend to be classier and fair play. Ireland might be the nation whose behavior has most moved Japanese people: The Irish team lost unexpectedly against Japan in the beginnings of the competition, but Irish supporters showed politeness and fair play as they congratulated the Brave Blossoms for their victory.

On a positive note, the Rugby World Cup allows Japan to meet all those foreigners’ kindness and benevolence, as they discover the subtilities of Japanese customs, in an original and experimental way. Internet and the social networks often act as a negative magnifier, but the atmosphere in Japan is not as deleterious as it may seem. Many Japanese are even happy to have a chat with rugby fans. They only need to have enough beer for everyone!

The end of the pools shaken up by a super-typhoon

On Saturday 2019, October 12th, typhoon#19 Hagibis, a powerful tropical cyclone, came from the Pacific side of the archipelago and disrupted the competition. For the first time in history, World Rubgy and the organizing committee had to cancel three pool matches of the World Cup, due the very bad weather conditions in Tokyo, Kanto, Chubu and in the south of Tohoku areas.

The following matches were cancelled, and declared a draw (each team received two points):

  • England - France
  • New-Zealand - Italy
  • Namibia - Canada.

This decision was first considered unfair by some commentators and players but was not discussed anymore after the typhoon hit Japan (along with a 5.7 magnitude earthquake in the east of Tokyo). The damages were tremendous, with hundreds of houses destroyed, and about 80 persons died or disappeared. Some foreign teams who stayed in Japan also helped in the recovery efforts after the typhoon, such as the Canadian team in Kamaishi, and were very welcomed by the Japanese people.

The Brave Blossoms breakthrough

Japan’s team aimed at the quarterfinals and they reached it with style! The Brave Blossoms, led by Jamie Joseph, their New-Zealander coach, have passed with flying colors their four pool matches:

  • After a slow start, they won 30-10 against Russia
  • They surprised everyone with a victory 19-12 against Ireland, in a very exciting match
  • They won easily 38-12 against the Samoa team
  • Finally, a few hours only after typhoon Hagibis, they played what was probably the best match of the competition and won 28-12 against Scotland. The audience of the match was also record-breaking in Japan, with 55 million viewers.

South Africa, strong and strategist (but not displaying a nice game), took revenge for the match lost during the 2015 World Cup and defeated Japan 26-3. However, the Japanese team displayed an impressive technique, with a speedy, dynamic and precise game. The Japanese game tends to move forward and its specialty is to perform a succession of offloads to score a try. We have been particularly impressed by:

  • Full back Kotaro Matsushima and wing Kenki Fukuoka (who, by the way, is also a pianist and an orthopedist), nicknamed "the Ferraris of Japan"
  • Fly half Yu Tamura and his excellent understanding of the game
  • The braves Shota Horie (hooker) and Koo Jiwon (the Korean prop, thanks to whom the difficult relationships between Japan and South Korea have been somehow temporarily smoothed)
  • The captain Michael Leitch, born in New-Zealand, has succeeded in winning the heart of the Japanese audience, who encouraged him when he played
  • And above all, by Luke Thompson’s kawaii Japanese accent (with a bit of Kansai-benKyoto-Osaka’s area dialect)

Some criticize Japan’s team as not being national enough, with 10 out of 23 members of foreign origins, however, the Brave Blossoms now rank 8th in the IRB ranking, before Scotland, and was even in France’s 7th rank for a few days after the quarterfinals.

A semi-finals line-up without surprise

The first four teams of the International Rugby Board logically qualified for the semi-finals: New-Zealand, England, Wales and South Africa. The last four included two nations of the South and two of the North, and this 2019 World Cup finals will see a match between the North and the South. The great favorites to win the Webb Ellis Trophy were the All Blacks, who won the two last World Cups. However, they have been defeated by England during the semi-finals.

The results of Japan Rugbu World Cup are the following:

  • The third-place play-off has been won by New-Zealand (40-17) against Wales
  • The finals ended with the victory of South Africa (32-12) against a restless English team
The front picture shows a decoration, portraying Japan’s rugby team members, made on a rice field in Kodai Hasu No Sato (Ancient Lotuses Park) in Gyoda, Saitama Prefecture, in the north of Tokyo. The picture has been taken during a visit organized by Kumagaya City, where three pool matches were hosted during the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
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