THERE is no denying the announcement of the 2019 Rugby World Cup being hosted in Japan was a risk when World Rugby made the announcement a whole decade ago.
There were many questioning the appeal of rugby in Asia, and specifically Japan, a team who at that point had one named credit in World Cup statistics, a record 145-17 loss to New Zealand in 1995.
Brave Blossoms in Brighton
Little did anyone know that one of the most stunning Rugby World Cup games, if not rugby as a whole, would take place in Brighton in 2015, for which I was present commentating for the BBC.
Most of the way down I was creatively assessing synonyms for ‘smashed,’ ‘dominated’ and ‘obliterated’ as, at the time, South Africa were the most successful World Cup team ever and Japan were the exactly the opposite, in terms of wins and losses.
The commitment, strategy and execution was a special thing to witness, and, as the game finished, the Japanese fans at the ground, many in tears, were buoyed by the 34-32 victory – whilst many others were asking ‘what impact would this have?’
The timing was perfect to gear toward the next four-year cycle, and the World Cup lit the fuse for optimism in Japan.
Although they did not progress to the knock-outs in 2015, the wider public may well have confessed to hearing about rugby, and some even showing interest enough to look up what may well be happening in the autumn of 2019 .
Back to England, and throughout August and September this year the World Cup warm-up games caused a bit of a stir – mixing between frustrations from the amount of games and, at times, boredom from the quality.
As a Yorkshire lad, it was a great thing to see England head up North for a game at St James’ Park, but the World Cup could not come soon enough – if anything to settle the ongoing, often hilarious, debate about who indeed was the No 1-ranked team .
As a reporter and commentator for the World Cup, I was sent a schedule that encompassed 11 games over 22 days, logistically bouncing around Japan like a pinball and working on games for 16 of the 20 teams set to take on the task of capturing the Webb Ellis Trophy.
What a prospect! In my research, I canvassed opinion from those that knew Japan well and every one of them said things of a similar nature; namely, they are incredibly polite people, the place is beautiful and “you will absolutely love it.”
Those comments made for increased excitement, and then it was time to get on with the show and get into the rugby .
We, as a 38-strong broadcasting team, started with a big bang as we had New Zealand versus South Africa, followed by Ireland versus Scotland in Yokohama, the venue of the semis and today’s final.
Yokohama Stadium is a 70,000-capacity arena in the South Tokyo city, a place with a population of approaching four million.
The scale of these cities is hard to put across, especially as a comparable to Yorkshire (think Castleford to Bradford of back-to-back high rise buildings), so it was apparent that there may be a tough slog in capturing the wider public’s attention, even with the sporadic cohorts of green, blue, tartan and black shirts that were popping up along their streets .
As the tournament progressed and the games continued to wonderfully entertain, each city we visited grew their number of banners, flags, posters and general interest.
It got to the point where, if fans were walking down the street in any national shirt, they were accosted for pictures by locals who politely and energetically engaged with a few words of ‘rugby’.
The whole atmosphere was notably changing. This was aided beautifully with the performance of the Brave Blossoms team, who managed to overcome their initial nerves and plug into the mains of the Shizokua crowd to beat the Irish in what was an immense moment, akin to the Brighton effort, but with far more assurance and almost expectation.
Their fans were beyond jubilant, yet still managed to find time to tidy the stadium!
After the exerting quarters and absorbing semi (not both!), it leaves just two teams, with a noteworthy contrast of styles, South Africa and England .
Having sat in my reporting position next to the South African bench down at pitchside, I did at times question my genetics, as never before have I seen the size of their juggernauts on a rugby pitch.
Their plan is simple, and typified by all 14 of their named forwards against Wales making just seven passes, with no offloads.
England, conversely, have pace, presence and skill across the whole team at a level I cannot ever remember, perhaps only New Zealand boasting such riches.
Japan and Fiji would be the only other teams to have a level of endeavor to challenge England in this regard, but without the power, control and rugby intellect that Eddie Jones’s men have .
The game will be super-charged . A crowd awash with white, green and rainbow nation flags adorned in a stadium fit for a final.
The emotions in the anthems, notably South Africa’s (my favourite of all 20 teams!), will set the tone – and an intensity of tension akin to a vice tightening will be present for most of the game.
It will almost certainly not be the same level of drama as the semi-final against New Zealand for any England fan, but I truly believe it will be of a similar result .
Lastly, there will be many takeaways from the Rugby World Cup, 2019 Japan edition, perhaps even the Webb Ellis Trophy for England – but many other elements will have nothing to do with the rugby.
This is a sport that places much of its appeal in the values generated by those that play and enjoy the game.
However, Japan has set new standards of gratitude, humility, openness and sheer respect that will stay with those fortunate enough to have visited, myself included. What a tournament it has been!