Sport & Culture

Can Asia Master Rugby?

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Sport & Culture

Can Asia Master Rugby?

New Zealand legend rugby legend John Kirwan is upbeat about the prospects for rugby in Asia. Especially in Japan.

The world's biggest continent isn't for the most part that familiar with rugby. But that could change over the next few years, according to one rugby legend.

John Kirwan knows a thing a two about the sport, having won the World Cup in 1987 with New Zealand. Now, he's predicting there will be two Asian nations at the 2019 World Cup.

Kirwan is currently the coach of the Japan national rugby team, a country that has been a regular at the quadrennial tournament. But there are hopes now that others are going to join.

This would be especially fitting in 2019, as Japan will be hosting the World Cup – the first time that the game has ventured outside its traditional heartlands of the United Kingdom, France, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Japan has yet to make much of an impact in World Cup competition, losing three matches and drawing the other at the this year's tournament in New Zealand. This was disappointing as Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) chairman Tatsuzo Yabe explained: “We had thought Japanese rugby had improved over the last four years, step by step. However, we found out firsthand that we are far from world class. It's hugely disappointing.”

“As soon as we return home, we will begin our rebuilding plans,” he told reporters at the time. “We have a huge goal of making the 2019 World Cup a success and to reach that goal Japan must join the top tier nations at all costs…we need to invest in the development of the team more than ever.”

The problem that Japan faces is that it doesn't have much in the way of decent regional competition. The European nations have their annual tournament, the Six Nations, while the big three in the southern hemisphere have traditionally had their tri-nations. They also tour regularly to play each other. Club rugby in these nations is also a good level.

In Asia, in contrast, Hong Kong, the Philippines and South Korea have been the best of the rest for much of the past couple of decades, but they aren't close to Japan. Kirwin thinks that Hong Kong is the next best bet, but is still optimistic about the future in general.

“Japan is edging closer to the top tier of global rugby and as host of the 2019 World Cup, there will be expectations of a good performance by the local team,” he told Rugby Week. “Not far behind is Hong Kong…Then you have the likes of the Philippines and Malaysia that have been winning a lot of matches in recent years. We've also seen a growing interest of the sport in India, and who knows, a good team can come out of there soon.”

Kirwin pointed out that getting the right rugby facilities and coaching is essential for the continued development of the game.

“If the Asian nations carry on training hard, with the right coaches and program, and push each other like they have in the past few seasons, I won't be surprised if we see Japan and Hong Kong battling it out for rugby glory with the world's best by the end of the decade,” he said.

His comments were echoed by the leading Chinese player, Johnny Zhang, who believes that the game is starting to take off in the world's most populous country.

“Rugby was a niche sport in China a few years ago when there were less than 1,000 people playing it. But ever since rugby was included in the National Games and the 2016 Olympics, the general public became more interested in it and participation grew as a result.

“If the China team can get into the Olympics, it will create even more awareness amongst the public. There are over four years until the Rio Games, and I hope the players in the provincial teams can improve quickly enough to become key players representing our nation. Japan, Hong Kong and Korea are the top teams in Asia and with probably just two slots available, we must work really hard to prove we deserve a place.”

If this happens, then the competition at the top levels of the Asian game will help to raise standards and may just give Japan the base it needs to succeed in 2019 – and pave the way for others to follow in the process.