Kevin Roberts: Don’t halt the blossoming of Japanese rugby

Japanese rugby is at an all-time high, but with the Tokyo-based Super Rugby team set to be axed in 2020 Kevin Roberts asks how traction can be maintained so that Rugby World Cup 2019 is remembered as the starting point and not a high water mark for the sport in one of the world’s major markets.

Sometimes everything just seems to click into place and officials at Word Rugby will, in private at least, be purring at the performances of the Japan team which have earned them a place in the quarter finals of the World Cup.

The story of Japanese rugby over the last two World Cup cycles has been one of the most remarkable in any sport. The scene was set at the last World Cup in England when they beat the mighty Springboks (South Africa) in a performance that some might have been tempted to dismiss as a one-off.

But that victory was a signal of Japan’s intention not simply to host a great Rugby World Cup four years later but to make a real impact on the competition whose knock-out phases have been dominated by the Tier One nations ever since its inception in 1987.

Yesterday’s win over Scotland followed on the heels of victories against Ireland – some people’s tip to win the tournament – Russia and Samoa and means they qualify for the quarter-finals as winners of their pool.

The game is likely to have smashed Japanese TV viewing figures for the sport and the public passion for the national team, which was obvious in the 72,000-strong crowd, is increasingly shared throughout the country by those who are getting to know rugby for the first time.

All organisers of international sports events understand that having the host nation – or a local hero – go deep into the competition is good for business and the Rugby World Cup is no exception. Indeed, World Rugby knew it was taking a measured risk in taking the competition away from its traditional heartlands for the first time. Had the Japanese team crashed and burned public interest would have waned and what is an exercise in accelerating the growth of the sport in a market where it has some, but limited, traction may have been judged to have failed.

So, the smiles around World Rugby are justified for now. Japan’s appearance in the next round is a landmark not just for the nation but the sport itself and should be a major platform for growth.

The question is, what comes next?

Ironically, while the national team has been performing heroically, Japan’s major pro rugby outfit, Super Rugby’s Sunwolves, is being wound up next year after a short and singularly inglorious history which has seen them win only a handful of the games they have played across five seasons.

The team, which was based in Tokyo but had also played some of its games in Singapore and Hong Kong, has been less than competitive. Its average attendance last season was a little over 10,000, with the higher crowds being drawn in Japan itself, but they are generally acknowledged as little more than a blip on the Japanese sporting landscape.

The decision of Sanzaar (the Southern Hemisphere Rugby governing body) to scrap the team as it looks for ways of strengthening its competition, always looked at odds with the policies of World Rugby – nothing new there – and yesterday’s events make it look even odder.

Japan’s success has created an enthusiasm for the sport which needs to be built upon by giving the Japanese public the opportunity to engage with a team and players they can care about and seek to emulate. So, if anything, the powers that be should be in super-expansive mode and looking for new ways to make sure that Rugby World Cup 2019 comes to be seen as a starting point and not a high water mark in the development of the sport in one of the world’s major commercial markets.

The establishment of a second tier of Super Rugby, ultimately with promotion and relegation, has been mooted and could house one or more Japanese teams. But that process will take time and it is uncertain that the momentum established during the World Cup in Japan could be maintained.

So perhaps there could be a stay of execution for the Sunwolves, or at least a successor club based in Japan which feeds off World Cup fever. Certainly, the local broadcasters will have been impressed by the appetite for the sport and might realistically be excited by and pay some kind of premium for the rights to a competition featuring a genuinely competitive Japanese team.

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