There has been a good deal of comment about the bidding contest for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, especially on the subject of Japan's chances of beating England, the clear favourites, and a fast-diminishing group of other countries to the hosting rights.
I am spending increasing amounts of time in Tokyo – I'll soon be here on a permanent basis, working with the Suntory Sungoliath team – and I have no hesitation in saying that when a World Cup comes to Japan, as it most certainly should, the sport will take another significant step towards a global audience.
Facilities here are outstanding and the enthusiasm for rugby amongst the wider population has not diminished, despite the negative impact of professionalism on the so-called "developing" nations.
Not so long ago in this city, 15,000 turned up to watch the All Blacks train! There is also a strong playing base, with 14 competitive teams in the top league and 500 universities heavily involved in the sport. If we build into the argument the country's socio-economic status and the Test team's potential to be one of the best dozen or so in the world, why shouldn't the International Rugby Board take a more adventurous approach?
From everything I see and hear, the Japanese are deadly serious about bringing the World Cup to their country. But as they are bidding for the 2016 Olympics and need to be fairly smart about how much money they commit and when, I suspect they are looking at 2019 rather than 2015. Besides, the IRB will have to maximise commercial returns from the 2015 tournament as a result of their decision to give the 2011 World Cup to New Zealand, who cannot hope to match the level of business generated in Australia six years ago, or in France in 2007. This is why any bid from Twickenham is confidently expected to succeed.
There were those who felt Japan should have won the contest for 2011, but with the New Zealanders tugging at the heartstrings with their "now or never" appeal and the old-boy network playing its part, Japan came up marginally short. What interests me now is how committed the decision-makers are to expanding the sport, because rugby needs new markets.
Eastern Europe is one obvious growth area, especially in Russia and Georgia, and in time, the United States could be a major player. There are good, experienced rugby people in America, but they have a world of work to do in capturing the corporate dollar. Japan is a much better bet. Public interest is already high and rugby standards are better than in the US. I don't believe any team in the American Super League could beat a top 10 side from Japan at the moment.
Having said that, I also think that Japanese rugby needs to recapture the imaginative spark that made the national team reasonably competitive at certain points during the amateur era.
There has been an influx of overseas players, many from New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, and while they have raised the physicality of the game here, they have dulled the spirit of invention. Japan will never compete against the major rugby nations through size and strength alone, but if they can get back in touch with their instincts, they might one day challenge in very different ways.
There will be no shortage of physicality in this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-finals. I can see the all-Irish tie in Dublin this evening being tighter than most people expect, although I still take Munster to win. Leinster have added some steel up front, and in Brian O'Driscoll they have a centre capable of producing a match-turning moment out of nothing.
As for tomorrow's game between Cardiff Blues and Leicester... well, I have this feeling that the English club will grind the Welshmen into the dirt. Leicester have the force with them, and when they feel good about themselves, they are terribly difficult to subdue. This much is certain: Ian McGeechan and his Lions back-room staff will be watching both games through their fingers. They have already lost one tourist to injury. The question is not if there will be any more casualties, but how many.Reuse content