The dust has definitely settled after Saturday’s final. Narratives have been painted, conclusions drawn, and aspersions cast. For the majority, the World Cup is finished, and our weekend mornings have been returned to us to fill with something other than watching the rugby bleary-eyed and stressed.
The tendency now is to look back, to evaluate the tournament and make a judgement on it. Amongst those that have done this, the overwhelming consensus is that it has been phenomenal. After the damp squib of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, this year’s tournament provided high-octane, scintillating rugby in fantastic host cities and stadiums packed with fans excited by a sport usually synonymous with the Northern and Southern corners of the Atlas, not Eastern.
Indicative of this success, is World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont’s assertion that World Cup 2019 was “probably the greatest World Cup.” It’s hard to disagree, and a contributing factor to this was the energy and enthusiasm with which the Japanese fans embraced one of the world’s most traditional sports and made it their own.
There was a 99.3 per cent attendance at grounds across the 48 World Cup matches, with 1.8 million tickets sold and a further 1.1 million people visiting the fan zones. For Japan’s Pool A decider against Scotland alone, 54 million people in Japan followed the game on TV, and throughout the tournament over a quarter of a million Japan replica jerseys were sold. Profit for this World Cup is expected to reach a record £165 million whilst generating a £3.1 billion economic impact for the hosts.
These are extraordinary figures for any nation, but they become superlative when considering rugby is superseded by baseball, sumo wrestling, football, golf and tennis in terms of popularity.
But the importance of this year’s World Cup cannot be quantified through numbers and statistics, and can’t be understood exclusively by looking back. For this tournament to become an unprecedented success, World Rugby must use its popularity to engender a new era of rugby in Japan and Asia beyond.
‘Legacy’ has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years. It is always talked about in conjunction with major sporting events, so much so that it is starting to lose its meaning. However, in announcing the start of the Rugby World Cup 2019 Impact Beyond programme, “creating a long-term legacy for the acceleration of rugby’s development in Japan” is exactly what Beaumont intends to do.
This new programme is attempting to inspire a new generation of young Japanese rugby players. It is doing this by targeting 400 schools nationwide, providing them with equipment and coaching whilst also hosting Rugby Introduction Days alongside the Japan Rugby Football Association (JRFU) and tournament sponsor Land Rover.
According to JRFU, the first series of Rugby Introduction Days inspired more than 8000 children to try rugby for the first time, whilst the Impact Beyond 2019 programme has already added 1.8 million players across Asia.
These are positive steps but starting ones. They mean nothing if the ‘legacy’ is not continued. Space, coaching and investment is needed – at all levels not just introductory ones – if rugby is to really take hold in Japan, and this requires more than a few balls in schools and a couple of coaching sessions.
Japan is at a cross-roads. Seemingly ready to embrace rugby if just provided the means and infrastructure to do so. If successful, I am certain Asia will become the new frontier for rugby, and a new era could dawn for the sport.
By Will Sewell.