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Could the final gong signal a new beginning for rugby?

As long-standing fans and more recent converts await the final instalment of this compelling 2019 Rugby World Cup, Charlie McEwen, CSM’s chief executive of Rugby, considers what the legacy of this defining tournament might be.

Charlie McEwen

As the gong sounded last Sunday evening, marking the end of the second semi-final, the cast for the next edition of the biggest game in rugby was revealed. After 46 matches between 20 teams, just two remain; England and South Africa for a place in sporting immortality.

The gongs might be ceremonial in nature, the whistle will still blow without them, but they form part of a rich tapestry of Japanese culture which has been threaded throughout this magnificent tournament.

Other strands include the drums which welcome the players to the field, the Japanese fans who have blended partisan with humility, the local brands who have been inspired to invest and, of course, the host team whose brand of rugby may just be the blueprint for the sport’s future. It is unlike any other in world rugby; fluent, fearless and simple. A product aligned to the way the modern fan wants to consume sport; compelling but not complicated. Attractive but accessible.

However, can it be effective?

Brighton in 2015, and Japan’s famous toppling of the Springboks, was deemed a ‘miracle’. Fast forward four years and the defeats of Ireland and Scotland, making it a clean sweep in the group, were anything but. These iconic victories were proof that the blueprint had ballast.

Although the fairy-tale came to an end in the quarter finals, Japanese rugby won the affection of the global game. I think of Koo Ji-won, the tighthead prop for Japan who was injured in a scrum in the 21st minute of the match against Scotland. Knowing it might be his final act of the tournament he was understandably desolate as he headed for the touchline, yet still he turned to his adversaries and bowed in respect and gratitude for the contest.

From its origins among the samurai to the rugby field today, this etiquette is symbolic of a culture which has enriched this tournament and embodies the best of rugby; fierce competition coupled with total respect.

These true rugby values have permeated beyond the pitch; opposing fans exchanging shirts at the full-time whistle, local supporters studiously learning the words to songs of other nations and thousands turning up to watch their adopted second team train.

It is a rugby fever which has proved infectious as more than half of the 126 million people of Japan tuned in to watch their final defiant act.

In a month when the $1bn Nippon Professional Baseball League came to a head, and the chequered flags were waved on the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix and MotoGP, it is a triumph for rugby that it has fared so handsomely in this competition for local goodwill. A triumph also for Canterbury with the supplier rushing to replenish its stock after selling out on more than 200,000 Japan jerseys. Fans of every nation desperate for a keepsake of a tournament that they know already is a watershed for the sport they love.

Unlike some of the other tier-two nations who have made a mark on rugby’s landscape, notably the Pacific Islands, Japan has the platform to ensure it is indelible not fleeting. They have the financial backing (local businesses with global remits interested in the product); the fanbase (record-breaking viewing figures are evidence of that); the players (Michael Leitch, Kenki Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima would improve any team they play in); and the club game.

While there was initial disappointment when it was announced that the Sunwolves was being disbanded after Super Rugby 2020, excitement is building for the launch of the new Japanese professional league. The challenge now for World Rugby is to ensure they are permanent part of the new narrative, unpicking the global structures and competitions to give them a seat at the top table.

The global brands have bought into this Japanese story. Most markedly, in my eyes at least, AIG whose how not to drive in Japan campaign, told by the All Blacks, is a smart and playful integration of the product with a deferential emphasis on understanding the local culture. Heineken, a brand synonymous with rugby, captured this tournament’s spirit of openness, calling on its global ambassadors in a TVC that assures prospective fans that you don’t need to know the intricacies of the sport to share in its drama.

And finally, Land Rover’s mascot programme, which allowed 96 children from around the world to live a dream, producing content which fans, teams and media alike have felt compelled to share. No moment more so than this introduction to Wales’ talisman, and any mascot’s hero, Alun Wyn Jones.

What next then for this evolving, global product? First, one final gong and what we hope is a fitting finale to an enchanting tournament. Then, the continuation of this journey into unchartered territory.

The investment from CVC Partners, a definitive step away from the historically polarising effect of multiple commercial entities, can enable the sports administrators to consolidate. Included in this: data, sponsorship, media rights, the approach to player welfare and changes to the global calendar. It can form part of a new, shared vision for the sport in which Japan 2019 is the model for growth.

With investment at both international and club level, as part of a wider global strategy, a historic USA 2027 or 2031 Rugby World Cup feels palpable. It has long been a promised land for the sport, but now emboldened by the success of Japan is it time to capture the imagination of another sleeping giant?

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