Japan 2019 might be the moment rugby union glimpsed a more fulfilling future

Robert Kitson in Tokyo
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

On stage at the World Rugby awards ceremony on Sunday evening the extraordinary Siya Kolisi was asked what kind of public reaction he and his team were expecting on their return to South Africa. “I’m not sure,” replied the Springbok captain, a note of uncertainty in his voice. He sounded like a bemused lottery winner still attempting to compute how much his life had just changed.

The heartfelt roar from the entire South Africa squad when Rassie Erasmus was announced as the world coach of the year was equally endearing. As Erasmus admitted, the team did not arrive in Japan necessarily expecting a successful outcome; in his view three key things – hard work, luck and destiny – propelled them to victory. His squad, he said, did not just want to boost their country’s spirits, they felt an absolute responsibility to do so. To paint their triumph merely as a nice rugby story ignores the inspirational bigger picture surrounding it.

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This was no ordinary World Cup either. In years to come it might even be seen as the moment rugby union glimpsed a different, more fulfilling future for itself. Up to now – professional era or not – the game has had a tendency to stare more at its own navel than gaze up at the stars. The first World Cup to be staged in Asia – and what a welcoming host Japan proved to be – has altered all that. Far from saying sayonara to their supposed betters and reverting to bit-part status, there is already talk of the Japanese being keen to bid again for a tournament that, according to World Rugby, benefitted the local economy by £3.1bn.

Television audiences have also smashed all local records – even beating what one executive has confessed were artificially high old figures – and conservative estimates suggest 10 million people in Japan are now looking to watch more rugby, either live or on television. That instantly puts it among the sport’s biggest markets and ensures the Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU) will not be short of new friends or suitors, particularly as the private equity firm CVC will be looking for swift returns from its soon-to-be-announced, multimillion pound investment in international rugby.

All this comes at a time when, as well as Japan’s possible admission to the Rugby Championship, other fresh frontiers are being examined. In the buildup to France staging the 2023 World Cup – and its organisers are already visibly excited about the possibilities – World Rugby intends to announce simultaneously the venues for both the next two tournaments. The process is continuing but do not be too surprised if South Africa – outflanked at the last minute of the 2023 vote by France – win hosting rights for 2027 with the US to follow in 2031, by which time England’s Tom Curry will only be a sprightly 33.

Already the organisers of next year’s Olympics in Tokyo expect interest in rugby sevens to soar even higher, despite the anticipated high temperatures that will require games to be played in the early morning and late afternoon. They also report sports fans in Japan have particularly loved the family-friendly, fun-loving ethos of rugby crowds, as well as being energised by the dazzling performances by their own team.

Not everything in the garden is rosy – the JRFU still has much work to do in terms of giving more youngsters exposure to good rugby at school and youth level – but it was also instructive to hear the world female sevens player of the year, New Zealand’s Ruby Tui, discussing her specialist area of the game. “Whether you like watching women’s rugby or not, sevens is growing at an insane rate,” said Tui, who has herself had to overcome significant adversity to reach the top. There are plenty of excellent female role models out there, as the 2021 women’s World Cup will underline.

<span class="element-image__caption">The success of hosts Japan, who reached the knockout stages for the first time, played a huge part in the success of the tournament.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Matthew Childs/Reuters</span>
The success of hosts Japan, who reached the knockout stages for the first time, played a huge part in the success of the tournament. Photograph: Matthew Childs/Reuters

It is the same with the men. Michael Leitch, Alun Wyn Jones, Kieran Read, Kolisi … if rugby is to be judged by the inspirational leaders shaping the values and attitudes of the next generation, it is in decent shape. There is also cautious optimism on the tackle-height front: while it remains premature to draw firm conclusions, the message regarding high and reckless challenges did appear to sink in after a fractious opening fortnight. Contrary to everyone’s worst fears, the big knockout games were mostly unscarred by red cards: the exception was the France v Wales quarter-final but, frankly, the elbow thrown by Sébastien Vahaamahina would have qualified for an early bath in any era.

The potential implications are tantalising: if injury rates can be reduced across the world and smaller players enjoy a renaissance – it was a pity in that regard that the diminutive Cheslin Kolbe did not pip his hulking teammate Pieter-Steph du Toit to the world player of the year award – the game’s custodians could have all their ducks in a row as they continue to enhance player welfare.

As things stand, the nine Saracens players involved in Saturday’s final in Yokohama will barely have time to unpack their bags before their club open their European Champions Cup defence against Racing 92 in Paris on Sunday week. It can only be hoped Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and co are still standing for England’s opening Six Nations fixture to France on 2 February.

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Then again, maybe they will draw inspiration from their multitasking clubmate Vincent Koch who, remarkably, has now won the Premiership, Champions Cup, the Rugby Championship and the World Cup in the same calendar year. Either way, the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2021 has gone up several notches in intensity and the new coaches of Wales and Ireland, Wayne Pivac and Andy Farrell respectively, face baptisms of fire.

Sizeable challenges still confront the whole game but tap into the can-do spirit of the 2019 World Cup and anything is possible.

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