Sunday 26 January 2020

A lot of heads need knocking together if Japan is to be ready for 2019 Rugby World Cup


Supporters enjoy the atmosphere outside the stadium ahead of the international rugby match between Japan and Ireland at the Shizuoka Epoca Stadium in Fukuroi, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan. Photo: Sportsfile
Supporters enjoy the atmosphere outside the stadium ahead of the international rugby match between Japan and Ireland at the Shizuoka Epoca Stadium in Fukuroi, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

As the host nation, Japan has a wonderful opportunity to welcome the world's top players and their supporters to not just enjoy rugby at its highest level, but to experience the reality of modern Japan and the spirit of the Japanese people.

- An introduction, RWC Japan 2019

A general view of the Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo. Photo: Sportsfile
A general view of the Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo. Photo: Sportsfile

We are in our over-priced Tokyo hotel meeting with a few folks from the RWC 2019 team, drinking green tea - as you do - and trying to get a handle on how the operation is ticking along. One of the lads we're meeting is from Shizuoka. Proudly he tells us it's renowned for its strain of the green stuff, and hands over a guide to tourism in that part of the world.

"That's great, thanks," we say. "Pity we didn't have this when we were there last week!"

Awkward silence.

It had been a sobering experience. The hotel charged €32 for access to the gym. On one of the nights we ate downtown, we made the catastrophic error of not reading the small print. In this case the price of the steak on the menu was per ounce, not per portion. You can imagine the apoplexy around the table when the bill arrived.

Despite many years of hopping around the world in June, we take some things for granted. Like Wi-Fi at match venues. The blood ran cold about 10 days before departure on this trip when we were warned that in Shizuoka there probably would be none. That's like rocking up to a restaurant to discover you should have brought your own cutlery. A lot of toing and froing resulted in a signal, of sorts, on the day.

"It'll be fine for the World Cup," we were told. And of course it will, for at the core of these events is a team of career professionals who arrive in good time with a list of what needs to be done - and knock enough local heads together to make sure it gets done. In Japan, you suspect there'll be a fair bit of cranial contact.

The Japanese rugby union would make the IRFU, pre-professionalism, look like a well-oiled machine. They chug along on their own little mono-rail, at their own pace, and the wind off the bullet train doesn't blow a hair out of place.

So you wonder about the proposed legacy from RWC 2019. It's worth remembering that World Cups are not awarded solely by a select committee from World Rugby having examined closely the merits of the contenders. Yes, there is a recommendation, but ultimately the destination is determined by lobbyists. It's like Ballinasloe Horse Fair, with men in blazers and suits.

So Japan pushed the boat out in order to secure the votes required. Nevertheless, it was presented at the time, in 2009, as a decision in the best interests of the global game: the first World Cup for Asia; the first time it would be taken outside the traditional unions. So when in November 2019 they pack away the flags and the bunting, and fold up the tented villages, there needs to be a tangible sign that not just the economy has taken a turbo boost.

Our Japanese pals tell us they are targeting a 70 per cent increase on the current figure of 122,872 (precise, eh?) people involved in the game. That figure includes tag rugby. Whatever, they have zero information on how that stupendous increase will be achieved. Through schools, clubs, both?

For the tournament itself they expect 400,000 visitors, because that was the figure that flocked to England two years ago. And the goal is to sell two million tickets (or 1.8 million depending on who you speak to) to the 48 games across the 12 stadia, one of which is a new-build and three of which are getting facelifts. These stadia are owned by local councils who according to Akira Shimazu, CEO of the RWC2019 Organising Committee, are all over this like a rash. "You don't need to worry about that," he says.

We're not. It's the other stuff. According to Mercer's annual cost of living survey, Tokyo is the third most expensive city on the planet. This is not to say that you have to re-mortgage your gaff to come over here, but things that will affect rugby tourists - food, drink, accommodation - are all steep. If you can source a pint for under €8 you're doing well.

In this case a little local knowledge goes a long way. The people are unfailingly helpful; trains are brilliantly efficient; taxis are good value too; and because in Tokyo you can't own a car if you don't have a parking space, traffic is not as big an issue as you might think. So a steer on where to stay and where to dine out would be, you'd think, all part of the plan. We asked our RWC pals how that one was coming along.

Awkward silence, again.

According to Alan Gilpin, head of RWC, the beauty of making the decision back in 2009 is that Japan, uniquely, have had access to two tournaments in the interim to get a handle on some of the basics. Like, eh, communicating.

In a World Rugby press release last week, Gilpin said: "During a week of productive meetings with our friends from the Japan 2019 Organising Committee, we stressed the importance of maximising key moments such as two years to go . . ." Sweet Jesus, imagine having to stress that!

The 2019 World Cup will pose logistical challenges, especially around Tokyo, for teams getting access to good facilities close by. A week ago we took a spin up the Sky Tree Tower, whose selling point is that it's the tallest free-standing tower in the world. From the top, the thing that strikes you about this stunning metropolis of some 17 million people is that space is at a premium. They don't do parkland and pitches.

For our money, however, the nuts and bolts of getting over their cultural reserve, and selling the gig at home and abroad, is a much bigger deal. Mr Shimazu says he hopes the Irish come in droves to the tournament, and hang around after it's over, for autumn here is beautiful. He'd need to mobilise his sales team first.

And it would be worth the effort. We'd have serious reservations about the enthusiasm or organisation of the Japanese union to capitalise on what's coming down the line, but enough will be put in place by the SWAT team to make the tournament itself a success.

Given the friendliness and generosity of the Japanese people the potential is terrific for a truly memorable experience. But there will be a few eggs broken before this omelette is worth eating.

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