World Cup 2019 might boost rugby in Japan, but forget about the rest of us in Asia

Organisers of the rugby showpiece to be staged in four years want to embrace the region, but the stark reality is that the tournament is the host country’s celebration

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 November, 2015, 1:20am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 2:14pm

Any Homo sapien, regardless of gender, who steps on a rugby pitch is a courageous soul. If you watched the Rugby World Cup final last weekend between New Zealand and Australia, you could not help being overwhelmed by the sheer physicality of the match.

It is a beautiful, gruellingly raw grind and the only sport I get bruises from just by watching. Rugby players and rugby people know this and proudly pin that culture on their chest like a cherished medallion.

Here it is, suck it up and let's get at it. When we are done pounding each other we will celebrate by sharing a beer together because respect for your teammates is as important as respect for your opponents. It's an honourable code, this thing called rugby and for the first time ever it is set to come to Asia. Well, kind of.

This is in every way, shape or form Japan's event. The country just happens to be in Asia

When the final whistle blew at Twickenham, west London's sprawling rugby union cathedral, and New Zealand retained their world championship, all eyes were now on Japan and the 2019 World Cup. There is and will be much talk from World Rugby that this will be Asia's World Cup.

But this is in every way, shape or form Japan's event. The country just happens to be in Asia. In the previous eight World Cups, Japan have been the only Asian team in the event and will have automatic qualification because of being the host.

The direct Asian qualifying berth in the event could be scrapped now with the top continental team doing battle with the powerful Oceania region for that spot in the tournament. The second highest-ranked Asian team in the world after number 10 Japan is Hong Kong at 24 followed by South Korea at 25. But don't expect to see either in Japan in 2019, unless World Rugby has a sudden fit of enlightenment.

Far nobler, I guess, to let countries like Namibia and Georgia lose by 60 points than have interlopers like Hong Kong or South Korea suffer a similar fate on Asian soil in 2019.

"It is important that Rugby World Cup 2019 opens the door for a second Asian team to participate," said Koji Tokumasu, general manager of the 2019 event. "We hope it will be one of the biggest legacies of the tournament held in Asia."

Well don't hold your breath, Koji-san, because all that integrity and grit the game shows on the pitch is often lost to the small-mindedness of the people who run the sport. The previous eight World Cups have rotated between Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland, France and South Africa. That's it. With the exception of Argentina in 2007 and 2015, the semi-finalists in all eight World Cups have comprised nations that have hosted at least one event.

All this is somewhat understandable and clearly helps defines the parameters where the passion for rugby exists. However, it does render all this talk of growing the game to be little more than lip service at this point.

There is a massive market in the US that they hope to tap into and having an American team playing in the rugby sevens in the Olympics will no doubt help.

But they tend to be fairly provincial in their sporting tastes in the US. There are, however, grass-roots pockets in Asia, particularly with kids mini rugby, that just need a little love to truly flourish.

What World Rugby is going to get in Japan is a totally different look. The country itself will be a gracious and accommodating host and should offer a diverse and fresh alternative for seasoned rugby fans. The beer is fantastic and beer is as much a part of rugby as tackling or scrums.

But because of political posturing the new national stadium will not be completed in time, forcing plan B and a finals match-up in cavernous Yokohama stadium, where the actual pitch is a mile or so from the stands because of a huge track surrounding it.

In fact, more than half of the 11 stadiums used for the tournament have a track, which can kind of kill the atmosphere because rugby crowds are as much a part of the show as the match itself. But when you take rugby, or any sport for that matter, out of its comfort zone this is what you get: a bastardisation of the game itself.

Apparently this is the price of growth and while World Rugby may not be happy about it, they can live with it and rugby fans are a resilient crew and will find fun regardless. But Asian inclusion? That's another matter and until that changes this will be Japan's World Cup, not Asia's.