Tokyo - After cycling more than 20 000km through 27 countries from Twickenham to Tokyo, two rugby-mad fans finally arrived on Thursday with a crucial item: the referee's whistle for the opening Rugby World Cup game.


Ron Rutland and James Owens have raised more than 75 000 (R1.2 million) for the official World Cup charity, ChildFund Pass It Back, and seek to seize on the first time the tournament has been played in Asia to lift awareness of the game.

The pair handed over their precious cargo to Welsh referee Nigel Owens who will take charge of the Rugby World Cup opening match between Japan and Russia on Friday.

Owens' namesake James said the pair had had "an amazing adventure together".

"We had the most incredible 231 days on the road, people in Europe and Asia were amazing to us. We just arrived here in Tokyo, so those memories will last for lifetime, but sad it's over," the Hong Kong-born former player told reporters.

Rutland tweeted: "Love it when a plan comes together. Twickenham to Tokyo a wrap."

In an interview with AFP as they passed through Hanoi, the pair said they had encountered surprisingly few mishaps - apart from dodging aggressive street dogs in Iran and Turkey, and stomach bugs that laid them both low in India.

"Cycling through countries like Iran and Turkey, numerous times people slowed down, opened their windows, handed us Cokes and water, oranges and fruit, countless, countless times," South African-born Rutland, a former rugby player, told AFP.

They bedded down in a monastery in Myanmar, stayed with families in Tajikistan and otherwise pitched their tent wherever they could if the weather cooperated.

It is not the first long-distance adventure for Rutland.

He cycled through every country in Africa en route to the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, and in 2017 played what has been billed as the longest hole of golf in history - 80 days and 20 000 shots in total - across Mongolia.

They packed very lightly along the way - a few clothes, some first-aid essentials and a GPS tracker mapping their progress online, as well as the precious cargo of the whistle that Nigel Owens will use to referee the Japan-Russia opener on Friday.

The pair also carried a ball that they brought out wherever they went, as they attempted to spread the rugby gospel to less-developed nations like Bulgaria, India, Vietnam and Laos.

Rutland is rooting for South Africa, Owens for England but they both agree that they want hosts Japan to go far in the tournament, hopefully raising rugby's profile in Asia.

The Childfund charity tweeted: "Their epic journey may now be over, but hundreds of children will have the chance to play, learn and grow through rugby thanks to Ron Rutland and James Owens."