TOKYO, July 29 – Japan rejoiced Wednesday after being named the first Asian nation to host the rugby World Cup, but faces a daunting task to build popular and financial support for the event.
"The god of rugby smiled on us!" Japan Rugby Football Union chief Yoshiro Mori said after the International Rugby Board voted in Dublin for his country to hold the 2019 tournament. England will host it in 2015.
"I am filled with emotion to be a part of this historic day for Japan and for rugby around the world," added the 72-year-old former premier, four years after Japan narrowly lost out to New Zealand in their 2011 World Cup bid.
"I’m happy like crazy," veteran winger Daisuke Ohta exclaimed after Japan’s much-touted "tender for Asia" to globalise the sport won the hearts of 16 members of the IRB’s 26-strong council.
But the 33-year-old, who has scored 69 tries in 58 Tests in a feat unmatched anywhere in the world, said the work was just beginning.
"Now it is a big question of how much Japan’s national team can compete as hosts," he said.
"If Japan bow out at the pool stage as the host nation, it will rather spoil the chance to promote the sport at home," added business daily Nikkei.
Japan coach and All Black legend John Kirwan said in Dublin the Japanese union had a "strategic goal" to lift the Brave Blossoms to eighth spot in the world rankings by 2015 from their present 14th.
"I strongly feel the need to raise the level of the game at high school," he said.
The agile but physically inferior Blossoms have scored just one win against one draw and 18 losses in the past six World Cups in which they represented Asia since the quadrennial event was inaugurated in 1987.
Japan’s union launched its campaign in 2004 to bid for a World Cup in an effort to stop the decline in rugby’s popularity at home since the IRB professionalised the sport in 1995.
The number of registered players has slipped to 120,000 from 170,000 in a decade but the union hopes to restore it to 200,000 by hosting a World Cup. Despite the fame they gained after organising the Olympics and the football World Cup, Japan lost their 2011 bid partly due to the sport’s limited popularity in a country crazy about baseball and sumo.
The union now hopes to more than double the average Test match attendance to 40,000 by 2015.
It also has to find a tournament fee of 96 million pounds (158 million dollars) to be deposited with the IRB as the government has not yet given any financial guarantees.
Japan also must "pump up the enthusiasm for the national team who are less popular than university or league sides," the influential daily Asahi Shimbun said.
"It is the beginning of a countdown to clear one problem after another in Japan’s ‘homework’ ahead of 2019," said the Sankei Sports daily.
Nobby Mashimo, the Japanese union’s vice president who led the bid team in Dublin, said the concept of rugby’s globalisation has been "well timed" with the IRB’s effort to make the sport an Olympic event again.
"IRB leaders cared much about the Olympics," Mashimo told Mori by telephone.
Part of Japan’s bid included allocating some pool matches to Hong Kong — home to the world’s biggest Sevens tournament — and Singapore — to draw supporters from the rugby superpower nations of Australia and New Zealand.
But Mashimo said Singapore may be dropped because it is hot and far from Japan. "Some people say it is hard to accept it (Singapore) and we must take another look at it," Mashimo told the daily Yomiuri Shimbun.
But he was positive about Hong Kong, saying: "As its market is matured, there is no reason to give it up easily."