Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Asia's first Rugby World Cup opens in Japan

The ninth world cup opens as Japan is gripped by rugby fever

The first Rugby World Cup to be hosted in Asia opened on Friday as a packed Tokyo stadium geared up for Japan verses Russia in the opener.

A sea of fans decked out in the red and white jerseys of the hosts t on performers at the opening ceremony, a sound and light show fused with traditional Japanese cultural references as rugby moves away from beyond its traditional heartlands in Europe and the southern hemisphere.

A military brass band, traditional dancers, live DJs, martial artists and drummers all took to the stage, as high-definition graphics projected onto the stage.

They ran through the myriad of venues, virtual mapping of each city's characteristics shown up to much applause.

The story of the birth and growth of rugby was then superimposed onto an iconic image of a snow-capped Mount Fuji.

The 20 countries taking part were announced, the biggest roars saved for the host nation, closely followed by defending champions New Zealand and South Africa.

Children representing the 20 competing teams belted out the World Rugby anthem World in Union before former All Black skipper Richie McCaw brought in the glittering Webb Ellis Cup that New Zealand hope to win for an unprecedented third straight edition.

Crown Prince Akishino officially declared the tournament open, with World Rugby chief Bill Beaumont saying: "This is the moment we've all been waiting for ... We can all be very proud tonight. You have made history."

Akishino added: "I hope the tournament will strengthen the bonds between participating countries and help grow the game around the world.

"I hereby declare the tournament open."

The tournament promises to be one of the most open in history, with at least five or six teams seen capable of lifting the trophy in Yokohama on November 2.

Organisers hope stars of the game such as All Black Beauden Barrett, Ireland's Johnny Sexton or South Africa's Siya Kolisi will spark enthusiasm for the game in Japan and Asia more broadly.

The early signs are good, with officials saying the tournament should be close to a complete sell-out and a staggering 15,000 fans turning out on a public holiday just to watch Wales train.

The global rugby showpiece will also serve as a tasty amuse-bouche for Japan as it prepares to host the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.

Officials claim that a promotional drive has inspired 1.8 million new rugby participants since 2016, one million of those in Japan.

But there are also reasons to believe the game in Japan is in need of support, with declining gates for club rugby matches and the country's only Super Rugby franchise, the Tokyo-based Sunwolves, booted out of the competition for commercial and logistical reasons.

'Miracle of Brighton'

Much will depend on the success of the home team, which gets the tournament under way on Friday with what should be a routine win against Russia.

Japan served up the biggest shock in World Cup history in 2015 when they beat the Springboks 34-32 in a match dubbed the "miracle of Brighton" that has even inspired a movie.

This time, however, no one is taking the Brave Blossoms lightly and they will do well to achieve their goal of reaching their first ever quarter-final by getting out of a pool featuring Ireland and Scotland.

The All Blacks remain the team to beat and their crunch encounter with South Africa on Saturday will go a long way to determining the outcome of Pool B - and maybe the next home of the Webb Ellis Cup.

Updated: September 21, 2019 11:50 AM

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