ITS re­turn to the coun­try in which the sport was in­vented hav­ing il­lus­trated that rugby union has now es­tab­lished it­self as a ma­jor player in the global event mar­ket, a first ven­ture be­yond its tra­di­tional heart­lands will take things to an­other level again.

Un­til now it has only been staged in coun­tries that were among the orig­i­nal In­ter­na­tional Rugby Board octet that ran the game when the in­au­gu­ral tour­na­ment was staged, and were the only ones at that time ca­pa­ble of grant­ing matches “Test” sta­tus and still had com­plete con­trol when the sport went open in 1995.

This week­end it feels as if the first cy­cle in the evo­lu­tion­ary process from an am­a­teur game to a pro­fes­sional one will be com­pleted when the coun­tries that con­ceived the idea of a World Cup and staged that in­au­gu­ral one in 1987 meet in the fi­nal for the first time hav­ing, other than that anom­aly of not hav­ing met in a fi­nal, dom­i­nated the com­pe­ti­tion so far by ap­pear­ing, be­tween them, in six of the seven pre­vi­ous fi­nals.

At the same stage of its de­vel­op­ment, the eighth tour­na­ment held also in England in 1966, there were some in­ter­est­ing par­al­lels to be drawn with where rugby union is now.

That year England be­came the fifth team to win the World Cup; Uruguay, Italy and Brazil all hav­ing won it twice while West Ger­many had won it once. It is ar­guably a cause for con­cern for what is un­ques­tion­ably the world’s most in­clu­sive team sport that there have now been a fur­ther 11 World Cups and yet, the num­ber of dif­fer­ent win­ners has only reached eight, all from either South Amer­ica or Europe.

We can but won­der whether that pat­tern will be re­peated in rugby union which al­ready has three Con­ti­nents on its win­ners list, Aus­trala­sia, Africa and Europe, but it is surely only a mat­ter of time for Ar­gentina and France, al­beit the win­dow of op­por­tu­nity may be clos­ing for the Celtic na­tions.

In those terms, how­ever, play­ing the next tour­na­ment in the coun­try that, for a while at least, be­came ev­ery­one’s sec­ond team at this tour­na­ment now looks an in­spired choice.

It is some­thing of a cheap cliché but the Ja­panese rep­u­ta­tion is not so much for in­no­va­tion, but for tak­ing ideas and per­fect­ing them and rugby is a sport well suited to that process.

Highly tech­ni­cal it is about as­sem­bling the rel­e­vant com­po­nents as ef­fec­tively as pos­si­ble and the rules of the in­ter­na­tional game mean that where nat­u­ral resources are not im­me­di­ately avail­able they can, as Scot­land has been so en­thu­si­as­ti­cally do­ing, be pur­chased else­where as long as the need to is iden­ti­fied three years in ad­vance.

Since, as Scots, we look at Aus­tralia’s in­volve­ment in the fi­nal and won­der what might have been, so Ed­die Jones and his Ja­panese team can look back at the World Cup sched­ul­ing and won­der what might have been had they not had to meet the two teams that qual­i­fied from Pool B in the space of five days.

It may be pro­ject­ing too far, but given the speed with which they have moved from con­ced­ing 100 points to Scot­land a decade ago, it may not be im­pos­si­ble that a first Asian World Cup could pro­duce a first Asian win­ner.

Ja­pan’s au­to­matic qual­i­fi­ca­tion for their own tour­na­ment by fin­ish­ing third in their pool also hope­fully opens up op­por­tu­ni­ties for oth­ers in their re­gion. I re­mem­ber be­ing in­vited to watch Ja­pan play South Korea in an Asian Cup match while in Sin­ga­pore in 1998 and, in spite of hav­ing been warned about the his­toric en­mity that added an edge to the fix­ture, was as­ton­ished by the reck­lessly self-sac­ri­fi­cial com­mit­ment of both sides.

“We want the Ja­panese peo­ple to fall in love with rugby,” Brett Gosper, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of World Rugby said as the 2019 World Cup logo was un­veiled.

Com­mer­cially driven as he is, he knows that if they do a pow­er­ful force will be un­leashed that can, for good or ill, trans­form rugby’s ca­pac­ity to grow quickly in mar­kets that were pre­vi­ously un­reach­able.


RE­TURN­ING to the World Cup knock­out stages was wel­come for Scot­land af­ter 2011’s dis­ap­point­ment, but 17 years af­ter our foot­ballers last con­tested a ma­jor fi­nals, com­par­i­son of the evo­lu­tion of the two sports is sober­ing. Ja­pan’s per­for­mance in Scot­land’s pool was one thing, but the progress of en­tirely home­grown Ge­or­gians and Ro­ma­nian teams was at least as omi­nous. By com­bin­ing their vot­ing power, the Celtic coun­tries can pro­tect them­selves ar­ti­fi­cially for a lit­tle longer by keep­ing them out of Europe’s top com­pe­ti­tion but if World Rugby does its job ways will be found to give them the nec­es­sary ex­po­sure to be prop­erly com­pet­i­tive at fu­ture global gath­er­ings.

TO THE FU­TURE: The of­fi­cial logo of Ja­pan 2019

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