Believe: Can Japan Really Become a Rugby Power?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/11/2015 09:57:00 PM
The Brave Blossoms have been the breakthrough team of the Rugby World Cup.
Despite Fox Sports Asia broadcasting it here, I haven't been able to follow the ongoing Rugby World Cup in England all that much (grrr). In particular, I am dismayed about not having watched the shocking upset of the mighty South African Springboks by, wait for them...Japan. While the Japanese are famously good at almost anything they put their minds to, we still have stereotypes that they weren't built for this sport.

Unfortunately, the Brave Blossoms became the first team to win 3 out of 4 group stage matches but not advance to the knock-out stages. Fellow Pool B member Scotland have an identical 3-1 record, but its 45-10 victory over Japan ensured that Japan's last game was meaningless since Scotland had already booked its place. Still, I was impressed that Japan played their hearts out in defeating the USA in their last game despite knowing they would not advance.

Come 2019, the Rugby World Cup will be held in Japan. Just as no one fancied Japan or South Korea before the 2002 World Cup hosted by those two nations, the BBC is predicting further progress by the Japanese after the rapid advances they've already made in the run-up to 2019. Prior to the famous victory over South Africa, they hadn't won a single Rugby World Cup event in 18 matches:
However, even [making the quarterfinals this year] proves a step too far for the Brave Blossoms, they have already made history with the greatest upset at a Rugby World Cup - their stunning victory over 1995 and 2007 champions South Africa. The Asian underdogs' results since then may not have matched that peak, but rugby union in the country is now on a popular high, and there is a new appetite and interest in the game that bodes well for Japan's hosting of the competition in 2019.

What has been a niche interest has found itself catapulted into the national consciousness, while last week global governing body World Rugby approved a revised tournament plan for 2019, one brought about by issues over where the final would be played in four years' time. 
As with sports nowadays, popular interest drives commercial interest, which in turn provides funding for the game's promoters in Japan:
One Japanese business expert, and keen amateur rugby player, believes that the tournament, the first ever to be played in Asia, will provide breakthrough moments for both the sport and the nation. "In Japan, rugby is not really fully recognised," says Seijiro Takeshita, professor of management and information at the University of Shizuoka, and former captain of the London Japanese Rugby Football Club.

"It is also a pretty difficult game to understand, so I think more recognition of the game would definitely boost the population of people who are going to look into the game. Once they do, they will get hooked."

There was an immediate upturn of interest after the South Africa victory, with nearly 20 million Japanese watching the team's second Rugby World Cup match against Scotland, their first following the stunning upset.
Given the time difference, that's a staggering audience watching in the wee small hours of the morning. The thinking goes that Japan may be the entry point for rugby in the wider Asian region. It's certainly possible, and I think rugby is an excellent spectator sport anyway even if I don't fully understand the rules (yet).