How will Japan 2019 come to be remembered in 10 or twenty years’ time? Will it be the tournament that gripped the world by what the hosts achieved? Or the one where World Rugby were put through their biggest test yet in having to cancel typhoon-affected games? It could also be remembered for the tournament that finally opened up the top of the game to more than just one or two competitors.
But hopefully the last six weeks will come to be remembered for much, much more than that.
In terms of what the World Cup will do for the game, Japan 2019 could prove the most important of the lot – bigger than South Africa 1995 which until now has been the benchmark for all other hosts. It takes something special to surpass the moment Nelson Mandela handed Francois Pienaar the Webb Elis Cup after the Springboks’ victory over the All Blacks 24 years ago, but on Saturday we witnessed exactly that as Siya Kolisi became the third South Africa to hoist the famous trophy into the air – and crucially the first black Springboks captain to do so.
It was far more than a fairy tale story given what Kolisi has been through to get to the biggest stage in the sport, but then that is not why this tournament should be remembered as an all-time great. The obvious answer would be to praise the Japanese hospitality given how warm the reception was for foreign fans in the Land of the Rising Sun, but then that happens in South Africa and France too.
But there is something else, something far bigger for the greater good of the game. 2019 could finally be the catalyst to abolish the dreaded term ‘tier two’.
For years World Rugby have pondered how to expand the game not just in terms of World Cup hosts, but how to get more than the established unions competing at the highest level. This led to the attempted launch of global league the Nations Championship, which was quickly shot down by the northern hemisphere giants when the soon-to-be-taken CVC money reared its head. But the performances of Fiji, Georgia, Uruguay and predominantly Japan has proven something needs to be done urgently to include these developing nations and continue their upwards trajectory. England will tour Japan next year – albeit with a weakened squad – while the Blossoms will tour Ireland in the autumn, but to get the most out of what they are building they desperately need to be included in a major tournament along with Fiji, who have the potential not just to challenge all comers at the World Cup but go and win it if they are given the chance such is the incredible natural talents within their player pool.
World Rugby will never be in a stronger position to try and capitalise on the momentum from hosting a tournament in a previously non-established rugby country to try and wrestle back control of the game from the unions and, more importantly, the domestic leagues, although that battle with the powerhouse clubs sadly looks like a lost cause unless the opportunity to invest in national unions opens up any time soon.
Yet there is more to this tournament that made it so special. Everyone is fully aware of the interest Japan took in staging the World Cup for the first time, with an incredible 60m people tuning in to watch the decisive pool-stage clash between their country and Scotland. But what hasn’t been as documented is the way that fans embraced the opposition, regardless of what was on the line or whether defeat would knock Japan out of the tournament. A number of Japanese fans were seen enthusiastically making their way to stadia kitted out in not the jersey of the Blossoms, but of their opponents on the day. Whether or not this had anything to do with Japan shirts selling out more than once is unknown, but to show such unity brought a previously unknown feeling to a sport that prides itself on its togetherness. Tribalism it was not, but when in the middle of such a feel-good tournament, who gives a hoot?
Then there was the scenes that rocked the fourth weekend of the tournament. Never before has World Rugby had to face something as powerful as Typhoon Hagibis, the tropical cyclone that left 88 dead, thousands more with affected households and billions worth of damage. As the aftermath of the storm played out – having forced both England vs France and New Zealand vs Italy to be cancelled – what Japan needed was something to bring the nation together. The World Cup did that emphatically.
More than 70,000 people headed to the International Stadium Yokohama fewer than 24 hours after Hagibis struck the area to watch one of the all-time great World Cup games as Japan defeated Scotland in an historic victory that will be remembered for quite some time. Japan was in mourning, with the seriousness of the situation demonstrated by the fact the silences before games continued right through to the final, but out of the tragic darkness shone a blinding light of hope and unity.
Not only did officials miraculously manage to get the game on in Yokohama, but they got the fans there too and gave a magnificently resilient nation the chance to show that they would not be beaten by something so powerful as Typhoon Hagibis. With that raw emotion behind them, Scotland never really stood a chance.
These memories – all entirely new to the foreign rugby community – are why this World Cup will be remembered for years to come. 19995 was huge for South Africa and a breakthrough tournament for rugby in a way of bringing people together, but we’re now in territory where Japan can change the game forever.
One such eventuality could be how the future World Cup hosts are determined. World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont announced on Sunday that the process to appoint the 2027 and 2031 tournament locations will be decided simultaneously, which suggests that the governing body are already looking at how they can break new ground while keeping the establishment happy. Hopefully one result of this is a rotational policy of taking a World Cup to a France, England, New Zealand or South Africa one year, and then a Japan or United States four years later. How great would it be to see Ireland, Argentina or even Italy become the next first-time hosts in the near future? And with Japan already sniffing around the 2039 tournament thanks to the success of this one, it genuinely feels like rugby is on the verge of a seismic change for good. Now it just needs to be implemented.
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