THERE’S A GRAND Slam to defend first, but the World Cup is very much in view for Ireland fans as 2019 kicks into gear.
While Joe Schmidt will keep his players’ minds focused on the Six Nations in the coming months, some supporters have been plotting their visit to Japan for years now.
With the World Cup taking place in Asia for the first time, the green army can look forward to a very different experience to what has come before.
Ireland fans in Japan in 2017. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
For its part, World Rugby is preparing for a record-breaking tournament that it believes will leave fans with lifelong good memories and a new-found appreciation for Japanese culture.
“The population here are very hospitable and very welcoming,” says Nicholas van Santen, international communications manager for RWC19′s organising committee.
“To a large degree, Japanese people are curious about other cultures and what those cultures think of Japan and the people here – the food they like, dipping in an onsen, or whatever aspect of the country.
“The other part that’s really interesting for foreign visitors is how uniquely different the host cities are from each other.”
The 12 host cities stretch from Saporro in the north to Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Oita on the southwestern island of Kyushu – the geographical spread ensuring World Cup visitors can experience more than the main tourist hubs of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.
World Rugby is expecting around 400,000 foreign visitors to Japan specifically for the tournament, with that future influx driving “fantastic” ticket sales so far.
There are in the region of 1.8 million tickets in total and van Santen says there were 4.5 million applications in last year’s ballot phases of sales, ensuring that most of the tickets for the biggest games have been snapped up before the first-come, first-served phase this year.
Unsurprisingly, Ireland’s Pool A games against Scotland, Japan, Russia and Samoa have been among those most in-demand, and not just from foreign fans.
“It’s not great news for Irish fans, who are victims of their own success,” says van Santen. “Not only have we had incredibly demand for Ireland but also for England, New Zealand, and Japan as the host nation.
There has been huge demand for Ireland’s games. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
“The Japanese rugby fan is a very aware and educated fan of the sport, not just in Japan but across the world. The opportunity to watch a team like Ireland is huge, so the demand from Japanese fans for Irish tickets is astronomical as well.”
Rugby was a big deal in Japan in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, explains van Santen, but declined in popularity for a range of reasons, including a 145-17 hammering at the hands of New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup, as well as the hosting of the football World Cup in Japan in 2002.
Baseball is wildly popular in Japan, while sumo wrestling and tennis are also among the sports vying for the public’s attention.
The launch of the Top League, Japan’s domestic rugby competition, in 2003 was the among the reasons for a growth in interest, with the shock 2015 World Cup win over South Africa an obvious spark point more recently.
Indeed, the fixture that followed that remarkable achievement under then-head coach Eddie Jones was Japan’s World Cup clash with Samoa, which had a TV audience of 28 million people back home.
World Rugby, therefore, has every confidence that Japan’s opening game of this year’s tournament against Russia on 20 September “will smash every previous Rugby World Cup viewership record.”
Aiding that aim is the fact that there will be three host broadcasters in Japan, with 32 of the 48 games live on free-to-air TV in a country that has a population exceeding 126 million.
A new level of viewership is one of World Rugby’s “legacy” aims for the tournament, along with player participation – they recently announced a target of 1 million new players in Asia before the end of 2019 had been achieved a year early – and the all-important economic impact.
Ireland played two Tests in Japan in 2017. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
It’s anticipated that the 400,000 foreign visitors will add £1.5 billion into the Japanese GDP in 2019, while there is hope that newcomers to Japan will return home to spread the good word and add value to the country’s tourism sector in the long-term too.
World Rugby are convinced that those who haven’t been in Japan before will delight in the cultural experience.
“It’s different but that’s an awesome thing,” says van Santan. “If you’re going to fly halfway around the world, you should expect it to be different.
“It’s beautiful and those experiences, if people are a bit brave, get their phrase book out, try the local food, appreciate what the locals appreciate, get to an onsen – those are the things that will make your trip and be what you tell your mates about when you get home.”
Van Santen’s rather useful three key phrases to start World Cup visitors off are:
Sumimasen – excuse me. “Said if you bump into somebody, getting attention in a bar, etc. Locals say it continually.”
Arigato – thank you.
Osusume – recommendation. “Osusume wa? as a question means ‘can you recommend?’ Very handy at a restaurant where the staff don’t speak English and the menu doesn’t have pictures. It also implores the waiter to give you the best thing on the menu. I use it daily!”
English-speakers will be accommodated for around the main transportation hubs, says World Rugby, with signposts in English and tournament volunteers on hand to provide help.
Ireland after a win over Japan in Shizuoka in 2017. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Anyone who has visited Japan before will have experienced the impressive comfort and time-keeping of the rail network, which should ensure relatively straightforward travel for supporters.
“The infrastructure to cope with all these people is definitely present,” says van Santen. “For the most part, people will be able to stay close to the stadia and transportation is fantastic.
“My advice, though, would be not to leave things to the last minute if you’re going to a game. If you’re transferring in Tokyo Station, for example, give yourself time because it’s a massive station with a lot going on.”
For the luckiest Ireland supporters, a voyage from Yokohama to Shizuoka to Kobe and onwards to Fukuoka awaits in the pool stages, with Schmidt’s men set for a return to Tokyo for their expected quarter-final.
The International Stadium in Yokohama for the clash with Scotland will welcome 72,327 supporters, while Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa will fit in 50,889 people for the meeting with Japan.
The clash with Russia in Kobe Misaki Stadium will be witnessed in the flesh by a crowd of 30,132, and the final Pool A game against Samoa in Fukuoka’s Hakatanomori Stadium will bring together 20,049 fans.
The winners and runners-up from Pool A will then head to the 49,970-capacity Tokyo Stadium for their quarter-finals, while the semi-finals and final are back in nearby Yokohama.
The hope for the green army will be that the rugby provides thrills all the way through to the final on 2 November, but the experiences off the pitch are certain to be memorable either way.
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