Rugby World Cup 2011
Fears for 2019 hosts Japan
Tokyo - Japan's winless exit from the Rugby World Cup raises a worrying question for the perennial Asian champions but minnows on the global stage: What will happen when they hold the event in 2019?
"Isn't it shameful for Japan to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup?" asked a sports columnist in the popular local tabloid Yukan Fuji when the Brave Blossoms returned home after three defeats and one draw in New Zealand.
A 23-23 draw with Canada stretched Japan's winless World Cup streak to 18 matches over 20 years, with their only victory a 52-8 thrashing of Zimbabwe in 1991, despite having taken part in every edition since it began in 1987.
Pundits are not holding out false hopes that Japan will match New Zealand's efforts by winning the tournament but the fear is that they will not even make the knockout stages, which would be a major embarrassment for the hosts.
In 2009, the International Rugby Board awarded the 2019 edition to Japan in an effort to globalise the sport and tap the lucrative Asian market. England will stage the 2015 event.
"Wouldn't it be better to let South Africa or Italy, who lost the bid, to do it?" said the columnist, Mitsuo Kamiya. "Japan qualified for each World Cup without much effort because the level of Asian rugby is low. But we always felt empty in the end."
Ever since it started the World Cup has been hosted by traditional rugby powers in Europe and the southern hemisphere.
But Japan's financial clout, along with its experience of holding one summer and two winter Olympics, and co-hosting a football World Cup, meant the sport's world body could not ignore its claims.
"We have eight years to go but we cannot waste a single hour in strengthening our team and, at the same time, boosting the sport's popularity," said Japan Rugby Football Union vice president Nobby Mashimo.
"If we had scored at least one win (in New Zealand), it would have pumped up the atmosphere. The tournament in 2019 is unlikely to become a success if we can't attract the kind of people who have ignored rugby," Mashimo told AFP.
The sport had its heyday in Japan in the 1980s and the early 1990s but has since declined in popularity while football has become big business following the launch of the professional J-League in 1993.
Both trail baseball in terms of money and popular following.
The professional rugby Top League was inaugurated in 2003 with deep-pocketed businesses bankrolling the venture. But gates are poor, with an average attendance of just 4 700 per match last year and no big improvement forecast.
Of all the 2011 World Cup matches, only an opening pool match between Japan and France was broadcast live on Japanese terrestrial television, although a paid-for satellite channel aired matches live.
"The best way to improve the situation is to have the national team win a match," Mashimo said.
John Kirwan, due to step down as Japan coach when his five-year contract expires in December, says the country needs tougher competition to progress.
"We need to keep playing at the next level. We need to play the likes of Scotland and Ireland -- teams that will put us under pressure," said Kirwan. "We need to learn how to win in those situations."
Kirwan, a hero in New Zealand's World Cup triumph at home in 1987, had targeted two wins in Group A -- which included Tonga and eventual winners New Zealand, as well as Canada and France -- as a step towards Japan's goal of joining the world's top eight by 2019.
But he has relied heavily on well-built foreign-born players in forward positions, with 10 overseas imports in his 30-strong World Cup squad.
Japan, again with Kirwan in charge, also bowed out with three losses and one draw in the 2007 World Cup in France. But they have since won all four editions of the Asian Five Nations and secured their first ever Pacific Nations Cup title in July.
Kirwan and Mashimo agree that university rugby wastes the talents of many young Japanese players, as they play a limited number of matches under coaches who may not be thoroughly professional.
"Amateurs become real amateurs in four years at university," Mashimo said.
Munehiko Harada, a professor of sports marketing at Tokyo's Waseda University, said the priority was to develop new, better players.
"I wonder who can do well where Kirwan failed," he said. "It may be not a matter of tactics but a matter of materials -- young players for future generations."
Former Australia coach Eddie Jones, who guided the Wallabies to the 2003 World Cup final and now coaches Top League side Suntory Sungoliath, is widely tipped to take over as coach from the New Zealander.
Jones believes Japan need to develop a more effective, high-octane style.
"You're not going to be top 10 in the world by playing orthodox rugby," he said.