TOKYO (Reuters) - They may already be in love with the game but high school players in the Rugby World Cup host city of Oita hope next year’s showpiece event changes perceptions of the sport in their homeland.
World Rugby’s decision to award Japan the 2019 World Cup, the first time the event will be held outside the sport’s traditional heartland, was in large part motivated by a desire to spread the popularity of the game in Japan and across Asia.
Over 266,000 people play rugby in Japan, according to World Rugby, 100,000 more than World Cup holders New Zealand. Yet the sport struggles to touch the national conscience in the same way as baseball or soccer.
“People in Japan, when they see rugby, think it looks scary and then they don’t want to do it as it looks dangerous,” said 16-year-old Oita student Takebe Wahiki.
Rugby in Japan started at Tokyo’s illustrious Keio University at the turn of the 20th century and the sport remains, for the most part, embedded in the country’s top universities and private schools.
However, Oita’s Maizuru High School, where Wahiki attends, is a public school that takes its sport, including rugby, very seriously.
The school has only won the prestigious High School National Championship once, in 1974, but their reputation for reaching the tournament’s later stages means many of the top young players from the area end up at Maizuru.
The staff and students are excited by the potential impact of hosting the tournament, particularly the All Blacks who will play a World Cup match in the city against a yet to be determined qualifier.
As a precursor, Oita will host a test between Japan and Italy on Saturday.
“For me, it is going to be so exciting to watch the World Cup and I can learn a lot from it. The whole team can learn a lot,” said Maizuru school captain Suzaki Kosai.
“It is a good thing for Oita to have this big rugby event as it will encourage more people in Oita to get involved and be more knowledgeable about the sport.”
Rugby is already one of the most popular sports on Kyushu, the island where Japan’s most famous player and the Brave Blossoms’ all-time top scorer Ayumu Goromaru hails from.
But Maizuru’s team manager believes it will only get bigger.
“Now that rugby is becoming more popular and coming into more high schools with younger people playing it, so people’s opinions are changing and their opinion of rugby is changing,” explained Mr Eto, a former player at Maizuru.
Reporting by Jack Tarrant. Editing by Patrick Johnston