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“From rugby enthusiasts to fans of Japanese culture,” World Rugby had promised “something for everybody” ahead of the opening ceremony here in Tokyo. On that front the hosts certainly delivered. Kabuki performers clad in elaborate customs and masks? Tick. A miniature-sized Mount Fuji rising elegantly from the centre of the pitch? Naturally. A life-sized Richie McCaw holding the Webb Ellis Cup above his head? You bet.
As opening ceremonies go, it did what exactly it said on the tin. It was the words of World Rugby chief Bill Beaumont, though, that consideration must be given to. “Over the next six weeks we will experience the very best of rugby and the very best of Japan as excitement sweeps this great nation,” he declared, with Crown Prince Akishino – a royal upgrade on 2015’s Prince Harry? – stood by his side. Because, outside of this spectacle, delivered on a typically humid evening in the Japanese capital, you wonder what is really in store for the Rugby World Cup as it unfolds over the coming weeks.
Let’s roll back 24 hours to the heat and hustle of a small, boxy izakaya in Yokohama, situated at the heart of the city’s Noge district. Hunched over a bowl of ramen, chop sticks dipping in and out of the hot broth beneath, Ayako looks confused. It could be something to do with the hapless journalist stood in front of her, stumbling through mispronunciations of the most basic Japanese words, but there’s no doubt of her response when it becomes clear what’s being asked. “Sorry, I don’t watch rugby,” she says, eager to return to her meal. Ayako, a teacher from the local area, cannot speak for everyone. But she’s certainly not alone.
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In this particular corner of Yokohama, there’s little to suggest that the Rugby World Cup has touched down on Japanese shores. There’s no rugby-themed paraphernalia in sight. On the TV, highlights from the sumo wrestling at Tokyo’s Ryōgoku Kokugikan draws the interest of those sat at the bar. Outside and beyond, posters and adverts promoting the tournament are hard to come by. Talking to the locals themselves, there’s a distinct absence of anticipation and excitement. Many are aware but simply not bothered. When it comes to sport, their interests lay elsewhere.
The numbers confirm this. According to a recent white paper, there are around 100,000 registered rugby players
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