The Wallabies prepare for the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The Wallabies prepare for the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

At last, rugby union hits final frontier

Asia's long wait to host the one giant sports event missing from its resume ends on Friday when the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Tokyo.

Unimaginable when the tournament was first held 32 years ago, the ninth edition of the sport's showcase event promises to be the game's biggest coming out party since rugby turned professional in the mid 1990s.

The Olympics went to Asia as long as ago as the 1960s so just why it has taken rugby's stuffy powerbrokers so long to take the event to the most populated region in the world is a blight on the game's reluctance to embrace change but even the sport's staunchest traditionalists know this tournament will be a gamechanger.

A general view of the International Stadium Yokohama ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
A general view of the International Stadium Yokohama ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

 

"After 10 years of meticulous preparation the wait is over and the stage is set for what we believe will be a transformational tournament," World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said. "Over the next six weeks, we will embrace the very best of rugby and the very best of Japan. Rugby mania is going to captivate this nation."

Japan were only awarded the World Cup almost by default when they cried foul about how the sport's powerhouses were hogging the lucrative event but all the forecasts are that it will break all the records that the bean counters care about.

On the field, the imbalance remains as wide as ever, even if tiny Pacific island nations can beat the likes of the United States and Russia. Only four countries, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England, have won the trophy and the odds are one of them will win again this time.

The Brave Blossoms, as the Japanese national team is known, will open the tournament against Russia in Tokyo with the eyes of the world watching less than a year before the Olympics return to the Japanese capital.

 

 

Japan pulled off the biggest upset in the tournament's history when they beat the Springboks in Brighton, England, four years ago but it didn't count for much as they failed to make it out of the pool stage.

 

They should beat Russia and could even make the knockout stages for the first time with a slice of luck but no-one really expects them to play the final in Yokohama on November 2.

"We are hopeful of a few rankings upsets, as there always are," World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said.

"Will we see another Brighton miracle? Actually, I don't know if we should ever call a Japanese win a miracle again. It's far more expected."

 

Nic White of Australia keeps an eye on the scrum during a training session at the Hokkaido Nopporo Sports Park.
Nic White of Australia keeps an eye on the scrum during a training session at the Hokkaido Nopporo Sports Park.

 

Like all great sporting events, there's already a hint of scandal with Welsh assistant coach Rob Howley sent home after being investigated for betting, and the usual antagonists firing shots at each other.

Australia's first match is against Fiji on "Super Saturday". After the off-field distractions with the Israel Folau saga this year, playing the World Cup seems easy by comparison.

It's only the second day of the tournament but also one of the most eagerly awaited with matches between France and Argentina then New Zealand and South Africa ensuring Asia's first World Cup will start with a bang.

 

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