TOKYO (Reuters) - Rugby fever swept through Japan on Friday as fans flocked to Tokyo Stadium for the start of the 2019 World Cup, ushering in the tournament to Asia for the first time with a lavish opening ceremony inspired by Japanese-style festivals and Kabuki dance.
Japanese “taiko” drums set the beat as the names of the 20 participating countries were projected onto a likeness of Mt. Fuji. Huge cheers went up for defending champions New Zealand but the biggest, of course, were reserved for hosts Japan.
A choir of children sang the “World in Union” theme before former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw raised the Webb Ellis trophy to rousing cheers from the roughly 50,000 capacity crowd.
“The stage is set ... to make this the best World Cup ever,” World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said.
Japan’s Crown Prince Akishino declared the Sept. 20-Nov. 2 tournament officially open.
The hosts kicked off the tournament with a 30-10 victory against Russia on Friday and supporters both local and from overseas turned out overwhelmingly in the red and white jerseys of Japan to root for the home side.
Fans squeezed on to trains for the journey to the stadium on the western edge of the city, then drank beer, had their faces painted and sang songs as they walked from the station to the venue. `
“I couldn’t sleep well and woke up early in the morning. I’m so excited,” said Hiroshi Moriyama, who painted his upper body in the colours of the Japan uniform with the message “Welcome RWC 2019 Japan” on his back.
Setefano Siu Magele and Maia Siu Magele, fans from New Zealand, showed their support for Japan by donning Japan headbands and red T-shirts.
“So excited, can’t wait. It’s going to be awesome and the atmosphere has already been awesome so yeah all dressed in the gear, ready to go. Go Japan!” said Maia, pumping her fist in the air.
After the match, Japan captain Michael Leitch said the energy from the home crowd helped give the Brave Blossoms a lift after they stuttered through a jittery error-prone first half.
“It was a packed stadium, with home fans. It really helps when the pressure is on. When we build momentum and fans get behind the team, it really excites us,” he told reporters.
Many fans also said they were excited to see the blockbuster clash between New Zealand and South Africa on Saturday, a sign that local fans’ interest in the World Cup will spread well beyond the home team’s matches.
Strong support for the tournament will be welcome news for World Rugby, who took a major risk in awarding the tournament to Japan 10 years ago, taking the World Cup out of the sport’s traditional heartlands for the first time.
Japan, ranked 10th in the world, are looking to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time after coming oh-so-close in 2015 in England, where they scored one of the sport’s biggest ever upsets with a victory over South Africa.
In Pool A they will also face Ireland, Samoa and Scotland.
Writing by Chris Gallagher; Editing by Jon Boyle and Giles Elgood